It is unclear when the madness will end. Just some days ago, the US government announced that it planned on asking all visitors applying for a visa to release their telephone numbers, email addresses and social media history.
The move, yet to be confirmed, is not altogether surprising. It follows President Donald Trump’s campaign promise of more intense vetting of foreigners in the quest for better security. The latest proposal comes six months after the Trump administration first announced that applicants for immigrant visas would be asked for social media accounts.
This means that some 14 million people who apply for a US visa each year will be subjected to the new rule. These are tourists, spouses, parents, professors and activists who will - above and beyond the disclosure of private details like salary, assets and bank account details - show their social media history before they are allowed to visit the US.
If you have no interest in travelling to the US, which certainly has become a more popular decision over the past few years (tourism has dropped by 4%; 40,000 people have lost their jobs in the industry since 2017) then you have nothing to be concerned about. Right?
If the new policy is to be adopted, we are looking at the beginning of a digital authoritarianism that will eventually impede every aspect of our life.
Firstly, consider the question of accountability. Anyone seen as “undesirable” to the US will be excluded from attaining a visa. But what amounts to undesirable will not be defined. Families will be split up and universities unable to bring critical thinkers in. It is America’s attempt at the digital isolation practiced by China or Cuba.
Second, it’s a matter of privacy. With Mike Pompeo, former Director of the CIA now in charge of the State Department, traditional US diplomacy has literally left the building. For those who apply for a visa there is no guarantee that personal information will not be shared with other governments, impeding the opportunity to travel elsewhere.
Consider that anti-racism or climate change activism are now global movements often mobilized against the state. The collection of private information has the potential to disrupt and undermine global movements merely by association.
Third, consider the wilful populism at play. Suggesting that American security will improve if outsiders will be screened for hateful comments is dishonest. America’s threats come from domestic crazies, not foreign ones. This is simply an attempt to shift blame that won’t solve anything.
Fourth, and surely most important, it’s the question of international consequence. The State Department’s move to collect and monitor private social media data will only embolden the draconian policies of other authoritarian and illiberal democratic states. This opens the gauntlet. This impacts everyone.
Of course, if you are part of the black, Latino or Muslim community in the US, you’re likely to be well-acquainted with government surveillance. Activists from movements like Black Lives Matter have been harassed on social media, their activities criminalized; the establishment has long-created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for those who question the status quo. These are efforts that date back to the civil rights movement. Few know that Black Lives Matter activists resorted to organising their protests off-line or in secret groups so that they would not be derailed by fascist right-wingers or by the police.
The monitoring of social media accounts of those wanting to visit the US will merely become an extension of a policy to regulate ideas, to filter thoughts and play arbitrator to what makes “a good American". Without even trying, the plan typically targets black and brown bodies once more. Countries that already don’t need a visa - mostly white, mostly European - will not be affected by the new rule.
It is extraordinary that social media, seen by so many as the 21st century panacea for democracy, would mutate into the very biggest threat facing democracy today. A space for creativity or exchange has become a platform to control.
Sociologists and media pundits have lauded the use of social media as a tool of democracy.
As a result, those nations, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Eritrea, Egypt, India and others who have tampered with the internet have typically been described as tyrannical and backward. Take the comments of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Egyptian revolution in 2011:
“Governments that arrest bloggers, pry into the peaceful activities of their citizens, and limit their access to the internet may claim to be seeking security. In fact, they may even mean it as they define it. But they are taking the wrong path. Those who clamp down on internet freedom may be able to hold back the full expression of their people’s yearnings for a while, but not forever.” Clinton said during a speech in Feb 2011.
Of course, surveillance did not start with Trump. He is merely building on Barack Obama’s legacy of heightened surveillance. It’s just that now the mask has completely dropped: the American government is close to adopting the authoritarian methodology of repression that it has so often touted to oppose.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t problems with social media. The lack of regulation has spawned a host of concerns. Not least is that issue of privacy, as seen with the latest impingement of Facebook users’ private information by Cambridge Analytics. Moreover, the hate on social media is more vicious than productive, the debates often carved within echo chambers.
But it is also clear that coordinated efforts of hate do not come from nowhere. Corporate PR agencies, working at the behest of states, or strong political elites are usually behind the troll farms that look to wield public opinion or manufacture hate.
We are inching closer and closer towards self-censorship; if we want to survive, thrive, fit into the system, we always knew that one had to steer clear of the authorities. But now that surveillance has reached such obnoxious and insidious levels, if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself. (With apologies to George Orwell).
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
Read more by Azad Essa: