life in pixels

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, WAG

Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

There’s a scene in Spycatcher, a memoir by the retired MI5 counterintelligence officer Peter Wright, in which Wright and a colleague realize that there is a leak inside the intelligence service. In order to flush out the mole, Wright writes, “We decided to feed what is known in the business as a ‘barium meal,’ in other words, offer a bait of sufficiently important intelligence that the two-legged source, if he existed, would have to relay it back to the Russians.” A barium meal (sometimes called a “canary trap” or a “marked card”) — a piece of meticulously crafted false information, provided to a suspected leaker in the hopes they will pass it on and incriminate themselves — is a well-known counterintelligence technique, and its use has been documented by all of the world’s top intelligence agencies: MI5, the CIA, the Russian FSB, and Coleen Rooney, the wife of English soccer star Wayne Rooney.

In a tweet earlier today, Rooney revealed she’d set a canary trap by planting false information in her (private account’s) Instagram Stories, from which she’d blocked all followers but one. When tabloids wrote up news articles based on information they could only have gotten from those Instagram Stories, it became clear that only the single person watching Rooney’s stories could have leaked them. The noose had been tightened; in its grip was Rebekah Vardy, another WAG. (WAG stands for “Wives and Girlfriends,” and is used as a noun in the U.K. to describe the partner of a soccer star.)

Vardy, naturally, has responded on Twitter herself, insisting that she would never, how could Coleen do this while Rebekah is pregnant, etc. This is, first and foremost, absolutely top-notch celebrity gossip, even if you’re not a soccer fan. (I sense this story will do more to make soccer popular in the United States than the MLS ever has.) But I was struck when reading Rooney’s statement by the extent to which the ordeal had the smell of a national-security story: not just the relatively sophisticated counterintelligence technique Rooney used, but the amassing of evidence, the sudden announcement of the uncovered plot, the terse statement impeccably timed to cause damage. (Rooney made her accusation in the midst of the week-long international break in professional soccer, ensuring that she could dominate the soccer-related news-cycle.) It felt not entirely unlike the FBI’s surprise statement in 2010 that it had identified ten Russian spies, whom it had been monitoring for a decade, in the U.S. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to hear that Rebekah Vardy was being deported to The Sun in a prisoner swap with Rooney.

Famous people have always feuded with, backbit, and leaked on each other, of course. But it’s rare to see such a formal declaration, or one that uses such advanced methods — a sort of next-generation, Cold War version of the hot war Kanye West and Kim Kardashian waged on Taylor Swift. We increasingly think of the internet’s megaplatforms as state- or government-like entities, and perhaps we should start thinking of celebrities (who are, these days, only the front-facing chief executives of a complex backstage brand machinery) in the same way: The WAG as sovereign institution, fiercely protective of its informational borders, engaged in sophisticated protections of its self-determination — which is to say, in this environment, its ability to determine how it is covered and what kinds of attention are paid to it.

Or maybe that’s taking it too far. Maybe it suffices to say that this era of social media has a tendency to make spies of us all. We scroll through Instagram and analyzing intelligence from vast feeds of data; what better way to describe the project of understanding the shifting conditions on the ground of a social platform than espionage? What are social networks anyway if not grey markets in occupied territory, sites of contested influence campaigns, zones of competition and combat conducted under semi-concealed, cloak-and-dagger rules? Just, you know, for clout, instead of for geopolitical advantage. If Coleen Rooney is paranoid, it’s only as much as James Jesus Angleton and the CIA ever were. If the people reading your feed are potentially enemy assets, why shouldn’t you be engaged in vigilant counterintelligence? Watch out for marked cards, gossips.

Coleen Rooney, Instagram Spycatcher