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Lesson of the Day: ‘The U.K. Spy Agency MI5 Joined Instagram. It Wasn’t for the Likes.’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “The U.K. Spy Agency MI5 Joined Instagram. It Wasn’t for the Likes.” by Marie Fazio

MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency known for its spying and secret-keeping, is now on Instagram. It joins other intelligence agencies on social media in an effort to appeal to job applicants, debunk myths about spies and help explain intelligence to the masses.

In this lesson, you will explore what you know — or think you know — about spies and spying. Then, we invite you to evaluate whether intelligence agencies should be on social media at all. How useful are these accounts to the general public? What can we learn from them? What limits do they have? Can they help us get a more accurate understanding of the world of espionage?

On your own, or with a partner or a small group if you are in a classroom, brainstorm everything you know or think you know about spies and spying. What do spies do? Why? Where and how do they do it today? What would you have to do if you wanted to have a career in intelligence? What famous spies can you name from history? What spies can you remember from popular culture — movies, books, comics and TV shows? How would you describe their looks and personalities?

Now, take a close look at this list. Which of these descriptions do you think might be accurate, and which do you think are probably myths? Circle any items you think could be untrue. Where might you look for reliable information about spies and spying?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. What is MI5? Why did the organization start an Instagram account?

2. Why might some people rule themselves out as job applicants for MI5? According to Ken McCallum, the agency’s director general, how might an Instagram account help attract a more diverse applicant pool?

3. What does MI5’s first post reveal about what its Instagram account might be like? How does it align to the agency’s goals for its social media presence?

4. Why might some people think it’s ironic that an intelligence organization would make its social media debut in the name of transparency?

5. Michael Landon-Murray, a professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs who has researched social media use by American intelligence agencies, said that social media could be a way to, “in a sense, almost hoodwink the public.” What does he mean by this?

6. Do you think intelligence agencies like MI5 and the C.I.A. should have social media accounts? Do they help humanize intelligence officials and educate the public about the art of spying, as the organizations claim? Or, as Dr. Landon-Murray said, are they more useful for image and brand management? What do you think would make these accounts worthwhile, if anything?

Option 1: Explore intelligence on Instagram.

Spend a few minutes exploring the Instagram account of MI5 (@mi5official) or the C.I.A. (@cia) with a critical eye. Click on the posts, look closely at the pictures and read the captions and comments. Then, reflect — in writing or in a discussion with your classmates — on the following questions:

  • What is one thing you learned about the intelligence agency that you didn’t know before? Did any of the posts debunk misconceptions you had about spies and spying?

  • Do you think the agency is accomplishing its goals for its social media presence, as detailed in the article? Does its Instagram account humanize intelligence officials? Does it combat stereotypes about spies? Does it explain the world of intelligence to the public? What else does the account do well? What could it do better?

  • Dr. Landon-Murray said in the article that these Instagram accounts could, in a sense, “hoodwink the public” about the real work that spy agencies do. Do you see evidence of this in the posts you viewed?

  • After exploring the social media presence of MI5 or the C.I.A., has your answer to the question “Do you think intelligence agencies should have social media accounts?” changed or been reinforced? If so, how so? If not, why not?

  • If you were in charge of the Instagram account for MI5 or the C.I.A., how would you run it? What do you think your audience would want to see? What kinds of images and information would you post? How would you interact with your followers? What tone would you try to strike? What other social media platforms do you think would work well for your organization’s message, and why?

Option 2: Debunk myths about spies and spying.

In the warm-up activity, you circled descriptions of spies and spying that you thought might be inaccurate. Choose one of those statements and do more research to find the truth. Here are some places you might start:

Then, imagine MI5 or the C.I.A. has invited you to create a post on the topic you researched for its Instagram account, or imagine that you have decided to create your own independent account to educate the public. Design a panel or a slide show that clearly and succinctly explains your topic for a general audience. You might outline your post by hand or use a design program like Canva.

Share your posts with your classmates and see how many new things you can learn about the art and history of spying.

For even more activities related to spies, see our guest lesson plan “Espionage Everywhere: Spying in the News and Popular Culture,” created in collaboration with the International Spy Museum.

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