Social media wake-up call

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

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The US State Department's proposal to gather social media information from people applying for US visas should serve as a warning to those who are predisposed to irresponsible use of the technology.

As reported in yesterday's edition of this newspaper, the State Department is seeking approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for the collection of information from visa applicants' Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit and YouTube accounts.

According to the State Department, it is revising the collection of information to add several more questions for immigrant visa applicants. “One question lists multiple social media platforms and requires the applicant to provide any identifiers used by applicants for those platforms during the five years preceding the date of application,” the State Department explained in its proposal published last Friday.

The agency also said that it wants to collect this information for identity resolution and vetting purposes. In addition, the US will be seeking five years of previously used telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and international travel data; all prior immigration violations; and whether specified family members have been involved in terrorist activities.

We have, in this space before, commented on instances of reckless comments and, indeed, behaviour posted on social media by people who, in many instances, should know better.

Readers will recall the director of a non-profit organisation and the mayor of Clay, a town in West Virginia, United States, having to resign in November 2016 after the mayor endorsed an extremely nasty and racist post on Facebook about former US First Lady Michelle Obama by the director of the non-profit organisation.

Indeed, there are myriad cases of officials either resigning or being fired for posting controversial comments or photos on social media.

Locally, this newspaper last week highlighted the case of Mr Rayne Russell, a Jamaican tennis coach who got himself in trouble with US law enforcers in Florida after posting on Instagram a photo of himself holding a high-powered rifle with a silencer with a caption stating that he was ready for the Ultra Music Festival being held in Miami March 23-25.

With all the mass shootings that have been taking place in America, and especially after the massacre of 59 people by a gunman at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas last October, it was only natural that Mr Russell's post would have attracted the attention of the police.

In his case he was extremely lucky that after being apprehended and questioned the authorities determined that he was merely being silly and had no intention to harm anyone.

Mr Russell must now be contemplating how that one moment of indiscretion could have cost him his freedom or, worse, his life. To his credit, he has acknowledged his error and has said he intends to use that experience as a teaching tool with his students.

That may very well work, and we hope it does. But the larger problem is one of a culture that has taken root, especially among teenagers and adolescents — a culture that will be very difficult to change.

Some will see it as a deep dive into the privacy of individuals. That is their right. But this State Department proposal might just be the wake-up call that many are waiting for to start acting sensibly.

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