In response to a Knight Institute Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the State Department yesterday refused to disclose a Biden administration report assessing the agency’s use of social media handles in visa vetting. President Biden ordered the agency to undertake that assessment on his first day in office, in an apparent show of good faith that his administration would be different from the last. But the agency’s refusal to provide any information about the assessment raises serious concerns about the Trump-era policy that the Biden administration has not just continued, but sought to expand dramatically.
In 2019, the Trump administration instituted new rules that require almost 15 million visa applicants each year to disclose any social media handles they’ve used in the past five years on 20 different platforms. The State Department implemented this requirement as part of President Trump’s so-called “extreme vetting” initiative, instituted alongside the Muslim ban. Civil society organizations raised alarm bells about the new policy, and the Knight Institute filed suit on behalf of two documentary film organizations to challenge the constitutionality of the requirement, arguing that it chills filmmakers’ speech and association online and deters some from traveling to the United States at all.
Upon taking office, Biden revoked the Trump executive orders that authorized the Muslim ban, calling them a “moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over.” At the same time, he ordered a review of the State Department’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s use of social media handles in the visa vetting process, including “an assessment of whether this use has meaningfully improved” the process. The Knight Institute hoped this meant the Biden administration was seriously considering eliminating—or at least curtailing—this dragnet collection of social media information.
We were wrong. Instead of rescinding this Trump-era policy, the Biden administration decided to double down. It’s now seeking to expand the requirement to another 15 million people per year who apply to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
Despite the serious ramifications this requirement has for the freedoms of speech and association online, the Biden administration hasn’t meaningfully justified its use. And while the report could shed light on the administration’s reasoning (or lack thereof), the State Department is instead hiding the report from view, relying on a slew of FOIA exemptions to withhold it in full. This is unacceptable. The public deserves answers, and it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get them.
Anna Diakun is a staff attorney at the Knight Institute.