On the same day that Donald Trump signed an executive order attempting to throttle social media to defend his freedom to lie, Twitter and Reddit highlighted how the administration itself proactively, enthusiastically stifles speech online. On Thursday, the companies submitted evidence in support of a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for surveilling visa applicants’ social media accounts. The policy, implemented in 2019 as part of the administration’s “extreme vetting” efforts, requires most applicants to register their social media identifiers, to be monitored and disseminated.
The lawsuit, filed last year by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Brennan Center for Justice, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, argues that forcing people to out potentially anonymous presences suppresses First Amendment rights by silencing applicants’ political opinions. In an amicus brief, Reddit and Twitter note that, under the policy, 14.7 million people are required to register their social media accounts every year. By the government’s own admission, they say, the information not only impacts people’s ability to obtain visas, “but is also shared broadly to other federal-government agencies to aid them in reaching decisions on deportation and the denial of immigration benefits.”
The surveillance not only impacts foreign students and immigrants seeking employment, but reaches far beyond the U.S. As evidence, the suit was filed on behalf of two documentary film organizations which host conferences with foreign and activist filmmakers, who would necessarily need to follow ideologically dangerous groups and human rights abuses. The complaint refers to a Syrian filmmaker who “uses pseudonymous accounts as a safety measure against political persecution.” Another uses an anonymous account to voice support for protests, one to speak freely about the Trump administration and U.S. politics, and a third to avoid stalking and harassment.
Twitter and Reddit add that people need anonymity online to protect information about family members, or to anonymously interact with addiction and mental health treatment services, and to “seek spiritual and religious guidance.” According to the brief, at least a quarter of users don’t associate their accounts with their full names, and almost everyone on Reddit uses pseudonyms.
Twitter recently lost a free speech battle against the government. In April, a judge blocked the company’s effort to report government surveillance requests, from a suit Twitter filed in 2014, arguing that the government was blocking its First Amendment rights.
Zuckerberg is nowhere to be found to defend the finstas, but its employees aren’t so cowardly.