How DARPA’s Twitter Account Leans Into Its Mad-Scientist Reputation

The humor belies the agency’s ultra-serious research.

Photo illustration of a spooky beaker, a person wearing a gas mask, and an explosion juxtaposed with the Twitter logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by McIninch/iStock/Getty Images Plus, celafon/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and cyano66/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Think of your favorite Twitter account. Does it belong to a celebrity, like Chrissy Teigen? Maybe it’s a weird niche account, like Art Decider or Bird Rights Activist, or maybe even a really funny brand, like Denny’s.
Chances are, it’s not the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s account. But for a brief moment last week, DARPA killed on Twitter.

The tweet read like many of DARPA’s others: conversational, friendly, but kind of dry. DARPA needed suggestions for an underground tunnel system to be used for “experimentation” within 48 hours. It also helpfully included three example photos, including concept art for a very wealthy evil scientist’s underground lair and a serial killer’s murder basement.

In a second, even creepier tweet, the agency went into further detail about its “ideal space”: a “human-made” environment “spanning several city blocks w/ complex layout & multiple stories, including atriums, tunnels, & stairwells.” It included another murder basement picture, along with one of what appears to be Track 28 at New York’s Grand Central Station.

The jokes pretty much wrote themselves. There were a handful of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles references. One person quoted the song “Still Alive” by the evil robot GLaDOS from the video game Portal. “We are definitely not looking for new places to keep all the Demogorgons,” tweeted another, referencing the Dungeons & Dragons monsters featured in Stranger Things, to which DARPA replied: “Please. Demogorgons are such a Department of Energy thing.”

DARPA’s research largely focuses on arming our military with the latest technologies. It’s best known for creating ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, for developing deadly weapons like the M16 assault rifle and Agent Orange—and more mysteriously, for working on parapsychology and mind control studies. It doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched that those tunnels could be used for something nefarious.

Since DARPA’s inception in the 1950s, spurred by the Russians’ launch of Sputnik, there’s always been a mix of public-facing programs—for instance, its first iteration, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, was a space program that set the stage for NASA—and “black programs” so secret the military refused to acknowledge their existence. The public has been receptive to some of those more public-facing efforts—here you are, reading this on the internet!—but it has also stoked criticism and distrust for programs like Total Information Awareness, which mined data from civilians. As recently as the 2000s, one-third of the agency’s budget was classified, says Sharon Weinberger, a journalist who wrote The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, The Pentagon Agency That Changed the World.

When I (along with at least a half-dozen other reporters) asked DARPA what’s up, its response was not the sensational story Twitter hoped it would be. The tweet was a signal boost for a call DARPA put out on Aug. 20 (leaving a still-small window of 10 days for responses), issued “to help identify potential representative environments where teams may be able to test” before the SubTerranean Challenge Urban Circuit, a robotics competition, says Jared Adams, the agency’s chief of communications.

Adams’s reply was the buttoned-down “just the facts, ma’am” canned response I’d expect from a government agency. It was the opposite of everything that worked with DARPA’s hilariously self-deprecating DARPA’s tweets from the day before: dry, uninformative, serious. Maybe this was DARPA’s communications game: wild on Twitter, straight-laced via email. I pointed out the agency’s “cheeky” tweets and asked how they came about, or if they were part of any bigger plan for its social media accounts. Adams’ response: “We have a broad audience and we try to keep things relevant to researchers as well as interesting and engaging to the general public.”

Kristy Dalton, founder and CEO of Government Social Media, says that after reading some of Adams’ responses to other journalists, she wondered whether DARPA’s spooky tunnel tweet was even meant to be funny. “There was some disconnect between [DARPA’s media] responses and what they said on Twitter, which made me think it might not have been intentional,” she says. Perhaps the call was tweeted in earnest—though the creepy photos might suggest otherwise—and the agency rolled with it once the rest of Twitter started making jokes.

Dalton, also known as “GovGirl,” consults government agencies on their social media use and says that even if that tweet was initially not intended as a joke, the agency was smart to ride it out as one. “The type of humor that pokes fun at your agency in sort of a self-deprecating way, at the expense of the agency, rolls really well on social media,” says Dalton. After all, the ultimate aim for many government agencies in using social media is to entice the public to pay attention to their work and announcements. Here, DARPA’s tweets provided an opportunity to poke fun at its mad-scientist reputation and pique the public’s interest in what it’s working on.

Dalton says a lot of government agencies struggle with appearing likable or approachable online—tax assessors, auditors, and DMVs are not the public’s favorites—but DARPA faces a unique challenge. “They’re kind of unknown to the public, or seen as mysterious or untouchable,” says Dalton. The CIA faced a similar challenge with its social media presence, so it put serious thought into crafting the perfect first tweet when its account launched in 2014: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”

DARPA’s tweets may be cute and its tunnel-centric robotics competition may sound innocuous, but the new strategies or technologies involved may be another story. Weinberger points out that DARPA did a lot of underground work that’s “classically military and has often involved classified work.” After 9/11, and around the invasion of Iraq, there were rumors that al-Qaida had built command centers and nuclear programs underground, says Weinberger. So DARPA poured resources into underground robotics. The SubT challenge appears, at least in part, to carry on that legacy: Its website says the challenge “seeks novel approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments during time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios.”

Still, better that government agencies actively seek out ways to communicate about their work rather than hide it. Weinberger says she’s been covering DARPA for about 18 years, and there have been ebbs and flows in how communicative it is—but she thinks it’s currently at a high point. “The culture of DARPA right now is a little more open than it’s been,” she says, pointing out that they seem to be doing more interviews, proactively inviting press to events, and tweeting, of course.

Dalton, too, says she hopes DARPA’s apparent openness and humor results in a wider audience. “Even if it wasn’t intentionally funny, it was a perfect opportunity, so kudos to them,” she says.
“But maybe next time, scare us a little less.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.