US President Donald Trump has done such a good job making America great again that nobody in their right mind wants to visit it any more. Tourism has experienced a so-called Trump Slump; with international visitors decreasing significantly since No 45 took office. In January, the UN World Tourism Organisation said that it expected Spain to replace the US as the world’s second most popular tourism destination in 2018.
Now, to be fair to our great leader, he isn’t entirely to blame for the downturn in visitors. The trend began back in 2015 and can be partly attributed to a stronger dollar. However, analysts are generally in agreement that Trump’s divisive rhetoric and obsession with travel bans has done a lot to make international visitors feel unwelcome and decide to go somewhere else on holiday.
The tourism industry is the seventh-largest employer in the United States. It is a big deal to the economy. You’d think an astute businessman like Trump would recognise that and want to do something about the decline in visitors. But, no, it seems that the Trump administration is intent on putting even more people off visiting the country. The government’s latest bright idea is to ask basically everyone who wants to enter America for five years’ worth of their social media history.
This isn’t entirely new: the Trump administration introduced tougher visa vetting last year, allowing officials to request information such as social media handles only when “such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting”. However, this latest proposal is much broader; according to a state department proposal filed on Thursday, most visitors would be asked for their social media identifiers. It’s expected to affect 710,000 immigrant visa applicants and 14 million non-immigrant visa applicants.
Now, I’m not against social media vetting per se. Indeed, I absolutely think that having an inflammatory social media history should preclude you from doing certain things; like, you know, becoming the president of the United States, for example. Tweeting about how you think women who have abortions should be hanged should also stop you from becoming a columnist at the Atlantic, in my opinion.
But should the US government be asking for carte blanche access to every visitor’s social media? Absolutely not. Not least because it makes no sense. If you’re planning a terrorist attack I highly doubt that you’re tweeting “can’t wait until I martyr myself LOL” or sharing hilarious Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] gifs. And if you were, then I’m fairly sure the NSA might have a few ways of figuring that out already.
And that, I think, is really the key point here. The government doesn’t need to ask for people’s social media handles in order to vet them. Bar China, perhaps, the US is the world’s most powerful surveillance state — thanks, largely, to Obama’s expansion of the government’s surveillance powers. This new proposal has nothing to do with national security. It’s about cracking down on free speech.
If you’re planning a trip to the US you are probably going to start thinking twice about criticising Trump online now. It’s a warning to the world to watch how you talk about the US if you ever want to set foot in the place.
And while this new proposal may be directed at visitors, it also sends a message to residents and citizens that you ought to watch what you say online. Indeed, we’re already seeing that criticising Trump can have severe repercussions. CNN dropped Reza Aslan’s show last year, after he called the president a “piece of [expletive]” on Twitter, for example. And the likes of Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulled sponsorship of a Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar in New York, after it was accused of being offensive to Trump.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media that Trump hates so much seems to be obsessed with appeasing the president by hiring columnists or commissioning TV shows that appeal to his supporters. That’s why we have a Roseanne reboot and why, every week, there seems to be a story in the papers humanising the Nazi next door.
Slowly but surely Trump and the views that he represents are being normalised. Trump is so skilled at creating news and distraction that we are losing our capacity for shock; he is exhausting us into acquiescence. But it’s imperative that we don’t let this new expansion of extreme vetting get through without a fight.
Demanding that visitors surrender their social media information is about far more than who America lets into its borders — it’s about suppressing criticism of the president. So, at the very least, please tweet about it. While you still can.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Arwa Mahdawi is a writer and brand strategist based in New York. Twitter: @ArwaM