Sunday Essay: A poke for Mr. Trump

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

FOLLOWING US President Donald Trump on Twitter, as nearly 61 million persons have done, will neither harm nor help your chances of getting a visa approved. Probably.

I don’t follow the American president but it’s impossible not to see any posts about him, considering how often his tweets make the news. Some reveal policy changes and some offer behind-the-scenes peeks at his official engagements. Some contain praise for his favorite conservative commentators and some push the juvenile nicknames he has come up with for his critics. Last week, he insulted a singer-actor by tweeting that he thought she was “a washed-up psycho.” How presidential.

But also last week, the US State Department confirmed that it will now require visa applicants to provide information about all social media accounts they’ve used in the last five years, for up to 20 accounts. Why does Mr. Trump’s government want to know the names we use for our Insta and “finsta” accounts? Are our vision boards on Pinterest about the abs we have yet to redefine and the clothes we can’t afford a correct measure of how worthy we are to step on American shores?

The new requirement is part of the “extreme vetting” procedures that the Trump administration asked for as early as March 2017. In October of that year, the US Department of Homeland Security began collecting social media information from new immigrants, green card holders and naturalized citizens, but only those (it said) whom the intelligence community had flagged for additional checking.

To be fair, such efforts began before Trump. The New York Times has reported that after a couple shot and killed 14 persons in San Bernardino, California in December 2015, both Democrat and Republican lawmakers expressed support for collecting social media information from all visa applicants. One of the attackers had entered the US less than two years before the mass shooting, on a K-1 (or fiancée) visa. She had also allegedly “pledged allegiance to the Islamic State” on Facebook.

In 2002, shortly after technology companies began building surveillance capitalism’s infrastructure, Steven Spielberg released a movie that speculated about how predictive technology would be used to prevent crime. In Minority Report, a character played by Tom Cruise arrests would-be murderers using visions of the future, as revealed to three genetically modified humans. He worked in PreCrime, using information supplied by PreCogs. It all seemed very farfetched then. Now it seems plausible.

Those who oppose the US Government’s social media surveillance initiatives want its agencies to be more transparent about how they would use the data they collect, where they would store it, and what safeguards were in place to prevent abuse and discrimination, especially against racial and religious minorities. Agencies now have the power and tools “to monitor speech and association to an unprecedented degree,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned. Last January, the ACLU sued seven government agencies for refusing to reveal “the nature, extent and consequences” of their social media surveillance activities. That lawsuit is pending.

Each year, millions apply for work or tourist visas from the US Government. The estimate as of 2018 was 14.7 million persons. Imagine the changed nature of the conversations between the millions who will apply this year and the consular officers who will vet them. Yes, an applicant might say, I plan to visit my cousins in Gas, Kansas because think of the status update that would make. But that’s harmless, right? So will you let me in?


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