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Hashtag Propaganda

On social media, we see government agencies as they’d like to be seen

On June 13, in a transparent attempt to piss out the fires lit by its inhumane treatment of detained migrants along the southern border, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took to Twitter to launch an online charm offensive. “Yesterday, ICE provided an extensive media tour of the agency’s dedicated housing unit for transgender women,” its feed boasted, followed by a series of photos purporting to show that a stay in one of its detention facilities was really little more than a cushy, taxpayer-funded sleep-away camp (never mind the fact that two trans women have died in ICE detention since May 2018). Pictures showed smiling women playing volleyball, browsing the library, getting their hair done.

The backlash was vicious and instant. One viral response by Brynn Tannehill featured a side-by-side comparison of an ICE photo featuring a woman stooped and gardening with another, older image of a prisoner watering plants––this one a propaganda shot taken at Theresienstadt, a Jewish ghetto and transit camp in what is now the Czech Republic that, between deportations to other camps and deaths within its walls, claimed over a hundred thousand lives.

The blatantly propagandistic images are disturbing enough on their own. But another layer, one largely absent from the outcry, is the exceeding weirdness of an ICE Twitter account in and of itself. Just as corporations aping humans have infiltrated the once-sacrosanct corners of the weird internet, government organizations have harnessed social media to project their power into the furthest reaches of cyberspace. Less than a decade after observers in the wake of the Arab Spring were proclaiming social media to be the ultimate tool for bottom-up democratic movements, these platforms have become so assimilated into the dominant structures of power that organizations responsible for enforcing the militarization of America’s borders and surveilling its residents can use them to swap pictures of #doggos.

Just as corporations aping humans have infiltrated the once-sacrosanct corners of the weird internet, government organizations have harnessed social media to project their power into the furthest reaches of cyberspace.

There’s a taxonomy to government social media accounts, a tonal spectrum that runs the gamut from affected goofiness to pokerfaced martial posturing. At the former end stands the web presence of the Transportation Security Administration, whose cutesy captions and copious use of dad jokes call to mind the meme of Steve Buscemi walking up to a group of teenagers and asking, “How do you do, fellow kids?” “You’ve cat to be kitten me right meow!” begins one Instagram post accompanying a picture of two cats, before going on to detail the proper procedure for getting a pet carrier through security. Another instructs readers to put any pepper spray they might be carrying into their checked luggage in a painfully rhythmless series of what the TSA claims are Shakespearean couplets. Many posts about airport regulations are shoehorned into bizarre time pegs in an effort to make their contents seem casual and of-the-moment: a tweet reminding readers about liquid limits for carry-on begins, “It’s #NationalDaiquiriDay!” Emoji-saturated messages instruct travelers that anyone carrying 🔪⚔️🏌️🏒🔨⛏🔫💣 will be 🚫 by 👮. The desire to seem hip can reach self-parodic extremes, as in one Instagram post that reads, “Getting caught while trying to fly with marijuana or cannabis-infused products can really harsh your mellow. Let us be blunt,” implying that while TSA doesn’t want to bust anyone for flying with pot, The Man is making them do it. It’s not always clear whether the leaden dorkiness of its content is ironic or sincere––or which of the two options would be worse. In any case, they’re hiring.

If the TSA’s Twitter persona is something of the dotty aunt desperately trying to prove she’s down with what kids these days are up to, the National Security Agency cultivates a cool teacher vibe. Fun-fact-laden tweets highlight historical examples of codebreaking, such as one #OTD tweet (complete with obligatory Hamilton reference) about a coded treasonous letter penned by Aaron Burr. The NSA’s Twitter account seems beamed from an alternate universe in which the Snowden leaks never happened: someone casually scrolling through a feed dotted with arcade game high scores and Puzzle of the Week posts would be forgiven for thinking that the role of the NSA was solely to fiddle with Caesar ciphers and not to head a massive and profoundly invasive global surveillance machine.

Other government bodies are less eager to defang themselves in the eyes of the public, instead using their social media as yet another front on which to bullishly defend the Trump administration’s policies. Such is the case for ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, both of which use Instagram and Twitter more or less as bullhorns for ultraconservative immigration talking points. Posts by both agencies make frequent use of language like “illegal alien” or “criminal alien”; a recurring theme of ICE’s social media posts is the illegal activity (bonus points for crimes related to drugs or sex) of foreign nationals in the United States, such as the recent sentencing of El Chapo or reports that “human smugglers” were attempting to pass off a Guatemalan girl they had raped as part of a “fraudulent family unit,” clear apologia for Trump’s family separation policy. Such posts blatantly contribute to the demonization of immigrants—especially Latinx immigrants—as dangerous criminals who need to be prevented from entering the country at all costs, while character limits provide a useful excuse to excise context that might put a different spin on events.

A recent post on ICE’s Instagram account pats the organization on the back for intercepting and returning cuneiform tablets smuggled out of Iraq—while neglecting to mention the role of the U.S. invasion in abetting the theft and destruction of Mesopotamian cultural heritage. Another crows about news that a number of Cambodian “criminals” have been deported, part of a recent spike in the number of Cambodian immigrants being forced to leave the country––yet as a January report in The Atlantic observed, many of those now facing deportation were born to parents fleeing the Khmer Rouge, whose ascent was facilitated by secret and illegal U.S. bombing campaigns. A significant number of them were eligible for naturalization but did not know it.

Social media accounts also allow government bodies to parry criticisms of their policies without ever openly acknowledging the existence of their critics. Having come heavily under fire recently, it’s no surprise that many of these agencies have used social media to recast themselves as diverse and accepting. For Pride Month, the NSA, which officially banned gays and lesbians until 1995, posted a picture in which its headquarters, usually an eerie obsidian black, were photoshopped with a rainbow gradient. The agency is apparently an equal-opportunity wiretapper. ICE’s Instagram frequently posts images of female agents of color in what’s hard not to interpret as a rebuttal to the widespread condemnation it is currently facing for racist and xenophobic violence.

Another strategy these accounts employ is posting photos that purport to show acts of charity and kindness on the part of officers. “A Border Patrol EMT treated a small child on the border this week suffering from insect bites that covered his body,” reads the caption on one image from the CBP Instagram account. On another: “Rescue (BORSTAR) agents provide emergency medical care to illegal aliens suffering from dehydration and exhaustion near Eagle Pass, TX.” (The strategy of using images of medical aid, incidentally, has historically been used to justify colonial rule.) But while these images posit border patrol officers as selfless paragons of human virtue, they contrast sharply with the fact that the U.S. government has prosecuted groups that seek to materially aid migrants with their cross—and that border patrol officers have “systematically destroyed” caches of water left for those crossing the desert.

Social media accounts allow government bodies to parry criticisms of their policies without ever openly acknowledging the existence of their critics.

While posts like these garner plenty of likes and shares, many users, obviously, are not taken in: a look through the comments section on @icegov is likely to turn up as much vitriol as agreement. Yet these accounts never respond: comments seem to be left up no matter how profane. This at first seems mystifying: after all, why would controversial agencies like ICE and CBP open themselves up to public rafts of hate? But in the logic of the Civility Wars, the fouler the language of the enemy––and some of the outraged comments can veer into misogyny––the less justified their position is. By making their opponents appear as though they are shouting mindlessly into a void, ICE and others turn barrages of justified anger into just another comments section trash fire. While their jingoism is obvious, perhaps the greatest exercise of power these accounts are capable of is this kind of haughty refusal to engage.

With their incursion into cyberspace, government bodies seek to project an image of their power not just at points of contact but at all times and in all places. However ridiculous their attempts to put a human face on institutions of surveillance and violent enforcement, it’s worth asking what those faces looks like and why. It might be amusing that a government employee is getting paid to reference Katy Perry songs, but anyone who likes or shares these posts is nonetheless being enlisted in a propaganda effort to recast state power as benign. Mining their feeds, we see these agencies as they want to be seen—harmless, benevolent, law-abiding, unstoppable.