Why is social media vetting not trending?

That photo was taken by me during a qawwali devotion at the Nizamuddin Dargah, Delhi during Ramadan and first appeared On An Overgrown Path in 2014. Despite being a kafir I have tried during my thirteen years of blogging to present a fair and balanced view of Islam. In fact my attempts to be fair have, I know, caused some readers to think I am too sympathetic to the Islamic cause. But now those attempts have turned round and bitten me, and the story needs telling .

My travel plans for 2018 included Iran, a country whose present regime I have little time for, but one with a rich cultural history that just begs to be explored. But as my travel planning progressed I came across the recently introduced requirement in the Iranian visa application process to provide details of social media accounts. Now sympathetic to the Islamic cause I may be. But entering Iran into the Overgrown Path search box returns some posts likely to give the mullahs heart attacks. Such as one containing this quote from the sleeve notes for an album of Rumi settings by Iranian singer Ali Rheza Ghorbani: "Those who in other times, have crucified Hallāj and Sohravardi, do not hesitate nowadays to oppress dervishes in Iran, demolish their schools or Khaneghah and their sanctuaries, ban their gatherings, imprison them and persecute them in a thousand different ways".

Then of course there are my numerous posts about Sufism, a mystical tradition frowned upon - or worse - by the Iranian theocracy. And the UK government travel advice for Iran states that many Western CDs remain illegal, which means my iPod Classic with its 160 GB of mainly Western music could pose problems. All of which means I am unlikely to get into Iran*. Or more seriously, if I got in I may not get out. So my planned trip to Iran has been shelved and there will be no photo essays here about the Imam Reza shrine or Iran's many other cultural riches. But there are much more serious implications to this vetting of social media than an aborted trip.

The Iranian government's explanation for the recently introduced measure is that it is a response to the introduction in July of social media vetting for Iranian passport holders by the US government. This is a very dangerous development. The criteria for denying entry into the US or Iran based on social media vetting is unknown. As the US - the 'policeman of the Western world' - has set the precedent for this, how many other countries will follow. For instance will Morocco, a country with an autocratic administration, follow suit? Will I need to be more cautious in the future what I write about Morocco, or about the US coming to that?

With online vetting the decision of visa or no visa is a subjective call by persons unknown using criteria unknown. And the process is not just confined to visa applications. In a survey 48 per cent of hiring managers said they check the social-media and digital footprints of candidates. About a third of the managers admitted to rejecting potential candidates because of questionable personal or professional traits they noticed online, while automated vetting software for corporations and governments is big business. So we are moving into an age where having an opinion about issues of the day may result in marginalisation. Where will this end? Will we be asked to provide details of social media accounts before booking a restaurant to make sure we don't write adverse reviews? - which is not as far fetched as you may think. Or will you need to declare your online activities before booking BBC Proms tickets to make sure you are not an Overgrown Path contributor?

There has been only limited recognition of the dangers posed by online vetting. Guidance issued by the EU Article 29 working party which represents all EU data protection authorities has stated with regard to job applications that unless social media posts are relevant to the role being recruited and applicants have been clearly warned that online vetting will be used, the applicant's privacy rights may be breached. While in the US recent state-level legislation in Illinois and Maryland barred employers from asking job applicants for social media logins.

Online vetting is a threat to at least two fundamental human rights: freedom of speech and free movement across frontiers. It is one of the many paradoxes of our social media fixated age that the as yet unknown negative impact of Brexit on free movement has become an online obsession, while the very real negative impact of social media vetting is attracting so little attention. Maybe the explanation is that most social media users have nothing to fear, because their obsessive online outpourings say nothing at all.

* There is no definitive information on entry criteria for Iran. Information from any readers with first hand experience of the Iranian visa process will be gratefully received. Please contact me via a comment on this post. Your communication will be picked up in the moderation process and will not be published unless you request. Algeria is also on my 2018 travel wishlist; the same information on the entry requirements for Algeria would also be valuable.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
It is good to see that Riccardo Muti and his Italian musicians have squeaky clean social media accounts - https://www.thestrad.com/conductor-riccardo-muti-to-lead-joint-italian-and-iranian-orchestral-concerts/6778.article
The solution to this is not to associate your real name with your blog. While I have gathered that you are a longtime veteran of the UK music industry and some savvy readers of your blog from that same scene may be able to identify you readily, the only thing I have only known you as, after years of reading this blog, is the moniker “Pliable” that appears alongside posts or comments.

It seems a stretch that the Iranian visa vetters would be able to connect your visa application with this blog. Rather, what they could particularly go after is social networks centered around use of one’s real, full name, like Facebook. In that case, the solution is simple: delete your FB account like so many people have done (people who are, generally, quite happy after that decision).

As far as privacy goes, you’d do your readers a great service if you allowed them to comment here anonymously: the way you have configured Blogger, people must use a social media account to comment.
Pliable said…
Christopher, thanks for that but I am afraid the problem is not that simple.

Unfortunately it is necessary to use social network sites such as Facebook to reach any significant audience for blogs these days. My Facebook account was originally in the name Overgrown Path. But a while back Facebook insisted that real identities were used, and in fact they started deleting accounts that used anonymous handles - see link below. So I and many others had to identify ourselves on Facebook, but not, incidentally, Twitter. All my blog posts are linked from Facebook, so if my Facebook user name is disclosed in a visa or other application my posts are immediately accessible.

The Pliable webname - taken from Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress incidentally - was adopted because I worked after retiring from my main career in a media role in the criminal justice system, and I had to avoid conflicts of interest on, for instance, human rights subjects. Because so many posts are online using that name it would be confusing to change it now; however my real name is often used and I make no secret of it - in fact it appears again in a post on (provisionally) Wednesday.

Sadly an anonymous comments facility is all too often frequently used to post unhelpful and uncivilised comments. I treat the blog rather like a dinner party to which friends are invited - I like to know the names of my friends and I don't invite them back if their behaviour is unacceptable.

I don't like anonymous comments, but at least I allow comments. Unlike certain other blogs.

It might interest you what no lesser luminaries than Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen have to say on the subject:

As terrorists develop new methods, counterterrorism strategists will adapt accordingly. Imprisonment may not be enough to contain a terror network. Governments may determine, for example, that it is too risky to have citizens “off the grid,” detached from the technological ecosystem. To be sure, in the future, as now, there will be people who resist adopting and using technology, people who want nothing to do with virtual profiles, online data systems or smart phones. Yet a government might suspect that people who opt out completely have something to hide and thus are more likely to break laws, and as a counterterrorism measure, that government will build the kind of “hidden people” registry we described earlier. If you don’t have any registered social-networking profiles or mobile subscriptions, and on-line references to you are unusually hard to find, you might be considered a candidate for such a registry. You might also be subjected to a strict set of new regulations that includes rigorous airport screening or even travel restrictions.

This is just an excerpt from their ground-breaking-and-that-sort-of-things The New Digital Age which I came to know thanks to Le comité invisible and their À nos amis.

As for the authors, well...

Eric Emerson Schmidt (born April 27, 1955) is an American software engineer, a businessman, and the Executive Chairman of Alphabet, Inc.

In 2017, Forbes ranked Schmidt as the 119th-richest person in the world, with an estimated wealth of US$11.1 billion.

Jared Cohen (born November 24, 1981) is the President of Jigsaw (previously Google Ideas) and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he served as a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton. Initially brought in by Condoleezza Rice as a member of the Policy Planning Staff, he was one of a few staffers that stayed under Hillary Clinton later referenced in an article entitled "Tweeting While Tehran Burns". In this capacity, he focused on counter-terrorism, counter-radicalization, Middle East/South Asia, Internet freedom, and fostering opposition in repressive countries.

Pliable said…
Thanks Johannes, social media vetting seems to mean 'heads you lose and tails you lose'.
Pliable said…
This comment on Facebook by Joshua Cheek about this post is worth sharing:

'While not really groundbreaking news for any of us who've been monitoring the continuing erosion of our digital liberties and security, here is a timely reminder from Bob Shingleton from his blog that there is no such thing as an "innocent comment" or privacy anymore.

When in doubt, post cat videos. That's all that is expected of you.'

Recent popular posts

Does it have integrity and relevance?

A tale of two new audiences

Folk music dances to a dangerous tune

Is classical music obsessed by existential angst?

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Why new audiences are deaf to classical music

Nada Brahma - Sound is God

Karl Richter in Munich

So it's not just listening ...

Watch Michel Petrucciani video online