US President Donald Trump. Picture: AP
IT IS unclear when the madness will end. Some days ago, the US government announced it planned to ask all visitors applying for a visa to release their telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and social media history.

The move, yet to be confirmed, follows President Donald Trump’s campaign promise of more intense vetting of foreigners in the quest for better security.

This means that some 14million 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 - a growing 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 adopted, it’s the beginning of a digital authoritarianism.

First, consider accountability. Anyone deemed “undesirable” by the US won’t get a visa. But what amounts to undesirable will not be defined.

Families will be split up and universities unable to bring in critical thinkers. It’s America’s attempt at the digital isolation practised by China or Cuba.

Second, it’s a matter of privacy. 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 mobilised against the state. Collecting 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 are screened for hateful comments is dishonest. America’s threats come from domestic crazies, not foreign ones. This is simply an attempt to shift blame.

Fourth, and most important, its international consequence. The State Department’s move to collect and monitor private social media data will only embolden the draconian policies of other authoritarian, illiberal democratic states. This impacts everyone.

Of course, if you are part of the black, Latin 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 criminalised; the establishment has long-created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for those who question the status quo.

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”. 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, nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Eritrea, Egypt, India and others that have tampered with the internet have typically been branded tyrannical and backward.

Take the comments of 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. 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.”

Surveillance did not start with Trump. He is merely building on Barack Obama’s legacy. It’s just that now the mask has dropped: the American government is close to adopting the authoritarian methodology of repression it has 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 - privacy concerns, the hate spewed and debates in echo chambers.

We are inching closer towards self-censorship; if we want to survive and thrive we always knew 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 an Al Jazeera journalist and co-founder of The Daily Vox