Written by Linh Ly
While many people are already familiar with the concept of a “digital footprint” - the idea of an online version of oneself being collected by organizations and institutions - and believe this is a useful strategy for performing surveillance, especially after the 9/11 attack, this can be a major problem for marginalized populations. What if your social media account was an e-ticket of life and determined whether or not you could live in your country or move to a new one in search of a better life? This may sound like another Black Mirror episode, but we are not far from turning these kinds of imaginations into a reality.
A recent article published by The New York Times entitled U.S. Requiring Social Media Information From Visa Applicants discussed how “visa applicants to the United States are required to submit any information about social media accounts they have used in the past five years under a State Department policy” , and it can also determine whether the U.S. will take you. Rewinding back to the past, in late September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) started to gather social media data from immigrants entering the U.S. , and now it seems like only a matter of time before this becomes a regulation. This is definitely concerning and has a number of implications, especially in terms of mental health.
Immigrants often face unique challenges and stressors that increase their risk of mental health concerns. Social media plays an important role for some; immigrants use social media to stay connected with their family overseas and to get in touch with people that are similar to them to receive the informal support they need in order to cope with post-migration experiences. Some even use social media platforms as a way to deal with their mental health. For instance, if you search “depression” through Facebook’s search engine, many community pages, personal blogs, and groups appear. Liking the community page or requesting to join a group could mean different things to different people. To some people, requesting to join a group means revealing their struggle with depression. Although mental health can be sensitive for many, this can be particularly sensitive information for immigrant groups. For others, requesting to join these groups could be misinterpreted, and it could automatically be assumed that you have depression even if you just want to understand the experiences of individuals coming from these communities.
Given the fact that DHS will collect immigrants’ social media data, sharing information and personal experiences about mental health could hurt immigrants’ statuses in the U.S. and keep them from upward mobility. What if this information on social media is used against them when they look for jobs? What if what they believed to be private disclosures of mental health are used to deny their access to university education or a high paying job? How I see this playing out: there are many negative attitudes and beliefs that already exist against immigrants, and trying to determine if they have mental illnesses will only prevent them from getting jobs because of the stigma that is attached to mental health (e.g., violence, unreliable, crazy, dangerous) even though talking about mood disorders like depression has become more acceptable in the U.S.
It is important that people be aware of the kind of authority they have over their personal information, especially in an online world. Down the line in 2 years or 5 years, no one will know exactly who could have access to their personal data and how these data will be used against them. That’s exactly what happened with Facebook. When it was first developed, it was a simple platform that was meant to connect college students, but look at the kind of power and influences Facebook has today.
In short, privacy and autonomy go side-by-side because no one wants to lose the ability to make decisions regarding what’s best for themselves, their future, and their goals, which is where human-centered design and engineering come in. So the next time you decide to post something on social media, think carefully about data privacy, especially if you are being perceived as an “outsider” in the society that you currently live in.
 Garcia, Sandra E. “U.S. Requiring Social Media Information From Visa Applicants.” The New York Times, 2 June 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/02/us/us-visa-application-social-media.html . Accessed 5 June 2019.
 Nixon, Ron. “U.S. Collect Social Media Data on All Immigrants Entering Country.” The New York Times, 28 September 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/us/politics/immigrants-social-media-trump.html . Accessed 5 June 2019.
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