Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

The passions that collide in me, the wild abandoned side of me… Should ASIO have a Twitter account?

The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigations has had a Twitter account since November 2008.  It shares information about the history of the organisation, about current work of the organisation, and about investigations currently being undertaken (‘Wanted Persons’).  With the blue tick verifying that Twitter knows this is The Official Twitter Account of the FBI, the FBI account also reduces the possibility of somebody making a fake FBI account to push various unwanted messages.

Its tweets are mostly innocous.  Some barely get a dozen responses.  One tweet about a man being charged with possession of an illegal firearm received responses no more enthusiastic than a heart emoji, a person responding only with the letter ‘k’, and another person claiming to be the first respondant to the tweet: ‘First!’

Others get a bit more of a response.  One post about China-related threats resulted in a flood of messages that alleged the real threat to the US was President Trump.

As far as the FBI is concerned, it gets a minor benefit at the expense of having one of its junior comms officers having to read waves of unhinged nutcasery every few weeks.  Should the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) do the same?

There was huffing and puffing today that ASIO has joined Twitter.  It’s first message: ‘Hi internet, ASIO here. I spy a new Twitter account. We thought it would be fun if you followed us for a change.‘ Which is fun.

The response was overwhelmingly negative, mostly from brains melted into slag by conspiracy theories.  Perhaps the most interesting bit is that people felt the need to reply to the tweet: ‘If I tell the Twitter account to stop spying on me, somebody at ASIO will definitely listen and do something about this.’  Which they won’t.  The only person reading the tweets — if anybody — is some junior comms officer.

Meanwhile, the head of ASIO has a Twitter account that receives practically no responses to anything he tweets or retweets.  To the best of my knowledge, his predecessor was not on Twitter.  The Australian Signals Directorate (the organisation that intercepts foreign communication and transmissions) has had an account for a few years, their tweets rarely getting responses in the double digits.

So we should expect the ASIO account to go mostly the same way as the FBI account: a slow stream of corporate stories about how it ‘does business better’ and maybe a few fun tweets about the Director-General of Se-Purr-ity, Geoffrey the ASIO house cat.

Increasing the visibility of ASIO on Twitter also helps its reputation.  It’s way harder to think that ASIO is a sinister organisation that lives exclusively in the shadows if you can see its Twitter account.  Given that ASIO does rely on that reputation element for its work with the community, it makes sense to occupy the Twitter space with an official logo and a blue tick of verification.

So the answer is: Yeah, sure, why not?

At this point, I want to pivot in a different direction: what could the ASIO account be?

The problem with this question, of course, is that it sets up the solution — a Twitter account — ahead of diagnosing an issue.  That aside, we all know that discussion about national security in the media is extremely bad.  On the one side, you have the racists.  On the other, you have people who think traffic lights are authoritarian.  Between those two extremes, you have clusters of people on the ideological landscape mostly working from intuitions based on pop culture and conspiracy theories.

No matter what national security legislation is proposed — indeed, no matter the side of politics that proposes it — you get exactly the same public debate in the media.  For a bit of fun, I take opinion pieces about national security law, jumble them up, and then see if anybody can link the text to the specific issue being proposed.  One very prominent writer on national security law is a chronic self-plagiarist, often lacking any discussion about the actual policy issue up for debate but speaking only in terms of ‘creeping authoritarianism’.

Could the ASIO Twitter account improve the debate?  First, it could be a way to connect wider audiences to its submissions to inquiries and reviews, and to its key messages at Senate Estimates.  Even if audiences don’t believe ASIO (see above about conspiracy theories), at least they know the broad outline of the discussion.

Second, it could produce short explainers about the legislation it administers and utilises.  I’m currently in the process of trying to map telecommunications interception legislation across five countries (aye, those five), and wonder if a lot of the angst and concern about the legislation would be eased if officials had produced more easy-to-digest content on social media.

Third, it would be able to improve the public’s awareness of prosecutions arising from national security law.  There is a lot of media attention on raids (usually when the least amount of information is available for the wider public) but comparatively little on prosecutions, or when charges are dropped.  An active Twitter presence means you don’t have to rely on news organisations giving equal prominence to the stories.

Finally, an active Twitter account could provide an opportunity for ASIO to engage in social media events, like TweetChats.   Sure, it’s about a decade old as a communication strategy, but if you lined up some of the better academics, think tanks, and other government agencies as interlocutors, you could have an interesting online event about a topic of public interest — like oversight of the National Intelligence Community, or the division of responsibilities across the agencies.

Yes, these suggestions increase the risk to ASIO, but there are real benefits in cultivating an interested, informed audience to improve the quality of public debate.


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