A bot on Twitter is sharing images of all 212 immigration detention centers along with the address and demographic information of each location, tossing cold, hard facts into the heated online debate over immigration in America.
Artist Everest Pipkin created the bot, @Abolish_ICE_Now, on Friday, about two months after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy that has resulted in U.S. Border Patrol agents separating thousands of undocumented children from their parents—an unspeakably cruel policy child health care professionals have characterized as “a form of child abuse.”
The tweets alone appear relatively anodyne, including details like the facilities’ last inspection rating, the city population, the median household income, average temperature, and nearby schools. But as Pipkin pointed out on Twitter, “This bot shouldn’t exist.” They continued:
“ICE shouldn’t exist. Prisons shouldn’t exist. But maybe we should see them, situated inside of communities where many people live, work, go to school, and have normal lives. Not everyone near a jail has the power to protest incarceration (physically or otherwise), and prisons are often strategically located in poor or historically-repressed communities. But for us that do —we have power where we live. We need to use it. These are our neighbors.”
Pipkin told Gizmodo in an email that they used to make art bots, such as @mothgenerator and @tiny_star_field, but it’s been a while since they created a Twitter bot, attributing the hiatus to Twitter’s terms of service, which “have allowed white-nationalists, the far right, and sometimes literal Nazis to inhabit a space on the platform as long as they don’t cross the very specific lines mentioned in the policy,” they said. “I still use the service myself, but felt uncomfortable making work for the platform. Those art bots don’t hold a political stance (even if I do) and that just isn’t good enough right now.”
The dataset for the Immigration Detentions Facilities Bot was scraped from the Freedom for Immigrants detention statistics map, according to Pipkin, along with demographic and census information for the cities. The addresses of each facility are fed into their API, and images are pulled from Google Maps, Street View, and Places. Pipkin said that the initial motivation behind scraping the data was a “simply civic act” to offer activists easy access to the information. Pipkin said they plan to add more context to the bot, reflecting the movements of those detained as well as changes in legislation.
Bots aren’t typically viewed as vehicles for protest—they are largely associated with merciless floods of spam, from the innocuous to nefariously deceptive. But @Abolish_ICE_Now signals a way in which automating the spread of information can offer a crucial lens into a deeply troubling political moment. And since it’s data-driven and, well, a bot, it is free of emotion and focused entirely on facts, providing little ammunition for trolls while giving the rest of us a useful tool.
“Bots of conviction are based in data, which is another way of saying they don’t make this shit up,” Associate Professor of Digital Studies at Davidson College Mark Sample wrote on Medium in 2014. “They draw from research, statistics, spreadsheets, databases. Bots have no subconscious, so any imagery they use should be taken literally. Protest bots give witness to the world we inhabit.”