Take Instagram, a clearinghouse for vacation selfies, food pictures and airbrushed dispatches from your friends’ lives. Now add MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, known for its spying and secret-keeping, performed — in the fog of popular imagination, anyway — by handsome, tuxedoed men who drink martinis.
A match made in influencer heaven?
MI5 officially joined Instagram on Thursday, making it the latest intelligence agency to try its hand at social media. The agency hopes its account, @Mi5official, will debunk myths about the art of spying, help explain the world of intelligence to the masses and highlight the agency’s history, it said in a statement.
“We must get past whatever martini-drinking stereotypes may be lingering,” Ken McCallum, MI5’s director general, wrote in a column in The Telegraph announcing the new Instagram account.
The agency hopes that its new “open approach” will attract a more diverse applicant pool by preventing people from ruling themselves out “based on perceived barriers such as socioeconomic background, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability or which part of the country they happen to have been born in,” McCallum wrote. The agency’s Instagram bio — where users who are not intelligence agencies typically list their location, hobbies, inspirational quotes, relationship status and more — simply says: “We are MI5. We keep the UK safe from threats to national security.”
Its debut post was a photo of the “pods” at the entrance of the agency’s London headquarters in Thames House. The off-kilter image drew confused comments from hundreds of Instagram followers. “Can’t for the life of me work out the perspective on this pic but then again I did just wake up,” one wrote. “Anyway can I be a spy?”
“The secret to successful spying? Consider all angles,” the caption under the photo reads. “It’ll give you a better view.”
“Behind these pods lie some of the UK’s best kept secrets,” it coyly adds.
The agency also said it would provide “interactive content,” including Q&A forums with intelligence officers.
In his Telegraph column, McCallum acknowledged the irony of an intelligence organization making its social media debut in the name of transparency. He said the move had become a “routine step for most organizations, but more interesting when you’re in the business of keeping secrets.”
“Our operations, and the nature of the covert capabilities we build, will not become an open book,” he wrote. “But we will become a more open and connected organization, constantly learning and finding new ways to tap into the diversity and creativity of U.K. life.”
MI5 is not the first government intelligence agency to make a foray into social media. The Government Communications Headquarters, another British intelligence and security organization, joined Instagram in 2018 to shed light on “the life of an intelligence officer,” the organization said. It also has a Twitter account.
The CIA, MI6’s U.S. intelligence counterpart, made its Twitter debut in 2014: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” it posted at the time.
Since then, its feed has featured a mixture of unscrambling word puzzles, retweets from top intelligence officials and jokes.
“No, we don’t know where Tupac is,” the CIA tweeted in 2014.
In 2016, the agency tweeted a real-time account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on its fifth anniversary. A spokesman for the agency told ABC at the time that the tweets were intended to “remember the day and honor all those who had a hand in this achievement.” However, the move was largely panned and left many questioning why an intelligence agency needed to have a social media presence at all.
The CIA’s own Instagram account features lighthearted series including #humansofCIA, which spotlights employees. The agency, which recently rebranded its website with a starkly minimalist aesthetic, offers a stated purpose for its social media presence similar to MI5’s.
“Our goal is to humanize CIA through our Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts so followers can see themselves here and apply,” Nicole de Haay, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday. “At times, we incorporate humor.”
Other intelligence agencies, including the FBI, which has Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and YouTube accounts, are active on social media.
Michael Landon-Murray, a professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs who has researched social media use by U.S. intelligence agencies, said that social media had become a part of “image and brand management” for intelligence agencies and “a box that needs to be checked.”
“A lot of what intelligence agencies do is kind of inherently ugly business,” he said. Social media can be a way for the organizations to demystify the public about their operations and “look cool, look funny — in a sense, almost hoodwink the public,” he said.
Those who follow intelligence agencies on social media tend to be fully supportive of the agencies or antagonistic toward them, he said.
“I think that there are potentially helpful uses, and ultimately, I hope that if the public understands intelligence agencies better, that we can have better conversations about things like the efficacy of advanced interrogation techniques,” he said.
“If it’s your thing, take a look at our Instagram page and follow us,” McCallum, the MI5 director general, wrote. “You can insert your own joke about whether we will be following you.”