The US Department of State approved and implemented new visa application forms on 31 May 2019 that require nearly all applicants for US visas to submit their social media usernames used in the last five years for screening.

What does this change involve?

Under this, an applicant of almost all types of visas, except certain diplomatic and official visa types, will have to share their social media information.

MediaNama verified this on the DoS’s Consular Electronic Application Center where all visa applications, including the most popular DS-160 (for a non-immigrant visa), are made. Under the ‘Contact’ section, applicants are expected to share their social media information.

Screenshot of application form showing the list of social media platforms in a drop-down menu.

Source: US Department of State – CEAC

Once you choose a social media platform, you are expected to provide the username:

Screenshot of the visa application form asking for social media identifiers

Source: US Department of State – CEAC

Any accounts that were used by multiple people in an organisation are not required. If the applicant does not fill out this section with either the details of social media profiles, or chose the ‘None’ option, the form does not let you proceed.

Multiple news reports have said that email addresses and phone numbers used over the last five years are also required. However, when we, at MediaNama examined the application process, we came across no such requirement.

Why was it implemented?

The New York Times reported that the Department of State said in a statement, ‘We already request certain contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants.’ The statement further read, ‘We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.’

The change was first proposed in March 2018 by the Trump administration and is expected to affect about 15 million foreigners each year. It aligns with the Trump policy of ‘extreme vetting’ of all immigrants, a promise that has turned into a refrain for him as the president as well.

What was the response of American civil society?

When the change was first proposed in March 2018, Hina Shamsi, the director of American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project said, ‘It [this move] will infringe on the rights of immigrants and US citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association, particularly because people will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official. … There is a real risk that social media vetting will unfairly target immigrants and travelers from Muslim-majority countries for discriminatory visa denials, without doing anything to protect national security.’

Is it radically different from what existed before?

Yes, in the sense that it is now mandatory for all visa applicants. Even during the Obama administration, social media information was a section in the form, but a voluntary one. AP  reported, ‘Social media … histories had only been sought in the past from applicants who were identified for extra scrutiny, such as people who’d traveled to areas controlled by terrorist organizations. An estimated 65,000 applicants per year had fallen into that category.’

What will the vetting process include?

Information about that is not available. MediaNama reached out to the US Embassy in New Delhi, but a representative said that they could only comment on genuine applications. MediaNama has also reached to the State Department for a comment. ACLU, in its March 2018 statement, had also remarked that the government had not disclosed how this information might be shared across government agencies and have consequences for residents and citizens of USA.

MediaNama reached out to the US Department of State for clarification. Their responses can be found here.

What all information would be revealed to the authorities?

On the face of it, it might seem absolutely innocuous to reveal social media information to any government. However, given the opacity around the vetting process itself, this kind of surveillance is a gross violation of the fundamental right to privacy of non-Americans. In light of all the personal data that social media platforms collect, with or without a user’s conscious permission, we are looking at: location data, phone numbers, spending habits, travel habits, access to their social networks, etc.

A few things to note

There are a few aspects of this policy that are of considerable concern:

  • Defunct social media networks: Few of the social media networks listed in the form are now defunct, such as Google+. How will the authorities access that data? Ideally, the platforms would not have user data anymore. If they do, and it is accessible to government authorities, it implicated the platforms of violating users’ privacy.
  • Private accounts: Not all accounts on social media platforms are available to the public. Many are private, viewable only by a user-selected network. Does the government hope to get access to that? Without any warrants? Will the social media platforms be complicit or coerced into sharing that data, especially because we are ostensibly talking about non-American users? That’s a really, really slippery slope.
  • Missing social media networks: There are a few notable absences in this initial list of social media platforms that is expected to grow with time, chief amongst them, 4chan, the bulletin board that has increasingly gained notoriety for becoming a fecund ground for white nationalists. Another absence is Quora, albeit devoid of such violent association.
  • Satirical accounts: Is information about satirical accounts also expected? That may undermine an individual’s safety and privacy. And one would assume that the hallowed First Amendment would encompass such accounts, even if they are made by non-Americans.
  • Journalists’ accounts: Journalists are often critical of governments, irrespective of their ideologies, and in this day and age, social media has emerged as a tool for journalists to communicate with each other and their respective audiences. Giving a ready reckoner on all social media usage, in the absence of clarity on the vetting process, can allow the American government to persecute journalists critical of the regime.
  • Basic misunderstanding of how people use social media: The Hill’s Hill.TV spoke to a Department of State official who noted that is a visa applicant lied about social media use, they could face ‘serious immigration consequences’ as a result. That doesn’t allow for lapses in human memory and demonstrates a very myopic understanding of how people use social media. If somebody forgets a particular account that they had on an obscure social media platform four years ago, will they be persecuted? Most people do not retain notebooks or documents with a list of social media platforms. Often people create accounts to check out a platform, and then never revisit it. Does fallible human memory warrant ‘serious immigration consequences’?

Making social media information mandatory for visa applicants is at best a demonstration of a lack of understanding of how social media operates, and at worst a manifestation of American arrogance that can undermine basic rights of non-Americans at its leisure.

Update: This article was updated to include the response from the US Department of State.