New social media checks for visa applicants show the dangerous transformation of surveillance in the US
The government’s social media surveillance seeks to not only fortify the myth of america as a free place, but also to sustain its violence.
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By Kim M Reynolds
As of May 31st, the United States now requires all visa applicants to submit any social media history within the past five years as part of a new state department “extreme vetting” process. Presumably, any social media posts critical of U.S. policy will be used against applicants. While certain applicants’ social media was searched under the Obama administration, this new policy is evidence of yet another evolution of oppressive surveillance tactics carried out by the US.
Like its predecessor COINTELPRO, this kind of invasive monitoring signals a dangerous suppression of thought and ideas, especially for marginalized people.
What makes the US such an oppressive country is the strength with which its myths have been built and are reinforced every single day. Turning to Colin Kaepernick exemplifies this reality; with his National Anthem protest that began in 2016, Kaepernick told the press that he was not going to stand for a country which “oppresses Black people.”
Following that press conference, the mainstream american media, both on the left and right, spent hours debating whether it was “patriotic” to kneel during the National Anthem, if it was an insult to the US military, and whether it was Kaepernick’s place at all to protest as a wealthy professional athlete. In all of this analysis and discussion, there was a complete omission of the core issue, the american distaste for Black people.
The myths of freedom that are performed through the singing of the national anthem in sports arenas and classrooms and the repeated propaganda of america being the best country on the planet have established themselves as truths. To question this truth is to be unpatriotic, and to be unpatriotic is to be a threat, and america deals swiftly with threats. The government’s social media surveillance seeks to not only continue to fortify the myth of america as a free, democractic, progressive place, but also to sustain the reality of its violence.
America is a country built through conquest, slavery and genocide, all the while justifying its violence under the guise of “manifest destiny.” When we can’t name and challenge its myths, we continue to see the project of colonialism recreate itself over and over again.
Further, suppression of critique from outside of the US maintains its imperial status in public discourse and keeps out those who disagree. This is why the social media surveillance in the visa application process is an explicitly chilling project of american exceptionalism.
COINTELPRO most infamously targeted groups like the Communist Party, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Panther Party. These groups along with mixed-race movements against the Vietnam war were also understood as dangerous to the state due to their liberatory politics and criticism of the United States as a violent and imperial country.
COINTELPRO was fairly successful in its mission to “neutralize” its targets, particularly the Black Panther Party. Out of nearly 300 documented actions of COINTELPRO, 233 of them were directed at the BPP. Hired informants facilitated the murder of rising leader Fred Hampton, anonymous letters created hostility within the groups and between local gangs, and according to attorneys for the BPP, the party spent over $200,000 on bail bonds between the years of 1976 -1979 which not only financially strained the resources of the party but worked to discourage action and membership.
Similarly, in 2017 the FBI introduced a category of surveillance for those they have dubbed “Black Identity Extremists.” In December of 2017, Rakem Balogun was arrested in Dallas, Texas under what is thought to be the first apprehension of someone under the FBI’s Black Identity Extremist label.
Balogun was arrested for being a “threat to law enforcement” and illegally possessing firearms. He was told that the FBI had been surveilling him for an unspecified number of years, monitoring his presence at Black Lives Matter protests via video sourced from the right wing site InfoWars as well as a social media presence where he would criticize law enforcement’s involvement in the murder of people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. This was all taken as grounds for “domestic terrorism” and Balogun was incarcerated for five months with no bail. He was let out when the FBI admitted that they had no specific evidence of Balogun making threats against law enforcement. However, during these five months, Balogun told the Guardian that he lost his house and his job and dealt with chaos following his release.
Balogun is only one of many domestic and international examples of how surveillance is used by the state to target Black people who are seen as threats to its power. It happens to others as well: When Edward Snowden released information about the NSA’s wide scale surveillance infrastructures, he was also threatened and forced to seek refuge in Russia on asylum status.
In the midst of this surveillance, it becomes difficult to find strategies to cope and strategize in the digital world. Meanwhile, apps like Signal are not perfectly confidential, but very well encrypted, and can help circumvent more public platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, which have been routinely used to surveil people who can considered dissidents. Also, collectives like Stop LAPD From Spying Coalition, Media Justice, Detroit Community Technology Project, Our Data Bodies and many others do work to organize around combatting surveillance, offering tangible strategies as well as on the ground campaigns to halt implementation of things like wide sweeping facial recognition technology. My hope is that collective power and serious reckoning with the realities of America can provide paths to a more dignified future.
Kim M Reynolds is a queer Black woman, race and media scholar, writer, organizer, and music lover currently based in Cape Town completing a double masters in media and communications.