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    MIT student sues CIA for information about its social media jokes

    Twitter

    Knock, Knock.

    Who’s there?

    A lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency — and no, it’s not a joke.

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    Amy Johnson, a PhD student and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is suing the CIA for failing to turn over documents, as part of a public records request, about the agency’s social media policies and how it manages its official Twitter account.

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    In December 2014, shortly after the CIA joined Twitter, Johnson filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the material for research purposes. Johnson was specifically interested in the agency’s use of humor and sarcasm online.

    But nearly three years later, Johnson says her queries about the agency’s unique Internet presence have gone unfulfilled.

    The lawsuit was filed last week in federal court on behalf of Johnson by the Technology and Cyberlaw Clinic, a joint venture between MIT and the Boston University School of Law.

    “Amy’s request is a clever and productive use of the rights afforded her through the Freedom of Information Act,” clinic director Andy Sellars said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that she needed to bring a lawsuit in order to get the CIA to follow their basic obligations under the law, but we’re glad to assist her.”

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    Johnson, who will graduate from MIT’s doctoral program in History; Anthropology; and Science, Technology, and Society, in June, said the 2014 FOIA request at the heart of the lawsuit is part of a broader study on how governmental agencies use social media in the digital age.

    A major part of Johnson’s dissertation, which she presented on Monday, looks at how some government agencies, like the CIA, have tested the waters with jokes, and latched onto trends, to engage the public.

    “Playfulness and humor, which abound in social media, open up opportunities for different kinds of interactions between government agencies and members of the public,” she said in an e-mail to the Globe. “It’s an area where government agencies are still experimenting — which in turn makes it a particularly good lens for investigating norms and practices.”

    The @CIA account, she said, is most interesting because it’s one of the few channels that the agency uses to get information out there.

    And, in the short time that the CIA has had an account on Twitter, it has used humor more than once to garner attention.

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    “Compared to similar agencies, it’s a latecomer to Twitter and yet burst onto the scene with a great deal of social media savvy and surprising lightheartedness,” she said. “This is unusual in a governmental account.”

    For example, the CIA’s first-ever tweet played on its known secrecy for a few laughs.

    “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” the CIA wrote in June 2014.

    The sarcastic message was retweeted nearly a half-million times.

    In a second instance, the agency made a joke about conspiracy theories that claim rapper Tupac Shakur is still alive.

    “No, we don’t know where Tupac is,” the CIA wrote.

    While some have applauded the agency’s humor, and the way in which it made a splash online, others have criticized the CIA, according to the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Johnson.

    “It is rare for a federal agency — especially an agency whose duties are so serious — to employ a humorous tone when communicating with the public,” the lawsuit says. “This makes the CIA’s decision to do so a matter of both public and academic interest, especially for scholars in the humanities.”

    The CIA did not return a request for comment.

    Since her research began, Johnson has submitted a slew of public records requests to both federal and local agencies. The request to the CIA, she said, is the only one so far that has resulted in a lawsuit.

    Johnson hopes the lawsuit will lead to the release of the information she has requested, and ultimately shed light on the CIA’s practices.

    “In @CIA’s early days, public reactions to its style were intense and mixed,” she said. “So it offers important insights for understanding emerging norms about what is appropriate for government agencies.”

    Read the complaint below:

    Johnson Complaint by Steve on Scribd

    Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.