It sounds like the plot of a modernized take on the George Orwell novel ‘1984,’ but it isn’t. Thanks to new laws passed by the Trump Administration, anyone wishing to apply for a visa to travel to, live or work in the United States of America is now required by law to provide details of all of their current social media profiles – and if officials don’t like what they see when they take a look, you may be prohibited from entering the country at all.
The move was originally announced as part of a sweeping crackdown on immigration by Donald Trump back in 2018, but has only recently come into law, catching many people by surprise. Visa applications now demand that prospective travelers, whether they want to immigrate to the country or not, supply officials with the usernames of all Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube accounts they’ve actively posted on within the past five years, as well as any other social media accounts they may use. On top of that, both past and present telephone numbers are being demanded as part of enhanced scrutiny at the borders. In the past, those entering the United States for business or education purposes have been exempt from any such checks, but that exemption will no longer apply.
Raising The Shields
While these details had previously been requested from individuals who’d been identified for extra vigilance – for example, anyone who had recently traveled to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other country deemed a present terrorist threat, the number of people directly impacted by such checks was relatively low, at approximately 60,000. Now, it’s believed that as many as fifteen million people each year will find themselves being asked potentially uncomfortable questions about their online habits.
The American Civil Liberties Union is alarmed at the changed in the law, having released a statement in which they stated that there was no evidence to suggest social media checks are an effective barrier against terrorism, and also suggesting that there’s a lack of clarity about how the provided information will be used, and who the data will be shared with once it’s been collected.
What’s also unclear at the time of writing is the nature of the checks that will be performed on people’s social media accounts, and who will be performing those checks. While ostensibly there could be some information posted on social media accounts which would be worthy of further questioning – for example, posts supporting known terrorist organizations, or statements in support of the same, there’s a fear that people could be denied access to the country on the grounds of their political leanings.
We already know from the case of Leigh Van Bryan in the past that security officials don’t have much in the way of a sense of humor when it comes to the tone of Tweets; the Brit spoke of intending to ‘destroy America’ when visiting the country on holiday in 2012. What he meant was that he intended to party very hard, with ‘destroy’ being a slang term for partying in the UK. He found himself arrested upon arrival in Los Angeles, and wasn’t able to convince anyone that he was joking. He was sent back home. That was seven years ago, long before security was tightened up to this degree. If officials could be overly zealous then, then any slightly anti-American rhetoric is likely to be viewed as a reason for refusal now.
Questions Of Law
On the surface, the policy seems to be contrary to one of the tenets that Americans hold most dear – the right to free speech. The terms of the First Amendment have been relied on in court and elsewhere in American society for decades to protect the right of citizens to protest, speak their mind, and criticize the Government when they feel the need to do so. Those rights have always been extended to all of those who landed on American soil. If the United States is no longer welcoming those who don’t have kind things to say about the Trump administration, it seems a matter of time before a high-profile visitor gets turned away, and the matter ends up in court.
There’s also a question mark about what other kinds of social media activity may land you in trouble. As an example, it’s illegal to gamble in Utah or Hawaii. Enforcing the law locally in those states isn’t an issue; they just ban access to online casino and their sister sites, and so it’s hard for anyone to break the law. Visitors to either of those states would find that they simply couldn’t log on to their regular online casino, and they’d make do. Facebook, however, has an online casino platform which allows people to gamble without leaving their website. Could someone be stopped from entering Utah on the suspicion that they might gamble while they were there, or would they have to sign a specific promise not to indulge in any gambling activity for the duration of their stay?
Given the lack of understanding regarding how the law works at the moment, those considering visiting the United States from outside it – whether for business or pleasure – would be best advised to check over their social media accounts before submitting their visa requests, and removing any content which is likely to cause offense. It’s also worth ensuring that your privacy settings on Facebook are up to date, and so your posts can only be seen by the people you intended to share them with in the first place. It’s always worth doing that on a regular basis anyway; we’ve lost count of the number of stories we’ve heard about people losing out on jobs or promotions because of a stupid social media post they made, and then accidentally left in public view.
In the near future, it seems likely that somebody will be the first person in history to be denied access to a country because of a meme they’ve shared on social media – and we wouldn’t want it to be you!