Spitfire Strategies

Five Lessons from the Digital Muslim Ban

Hannah Berkman

By Hannah Berkman
Vice President

Jennifer Carnig

By Jennifer Carnig
Chief Advocacy Officer


The Trump administration’s relentless assault against immigrants suffered a blow in May, thanks to the tireless work of a coalition of digital civil rights advocates—and Spitfire was honored to support them.

In the summer of 2017, on the heels of President Trump’s draconian Muslim travel ban, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a “statement of objectives” for a system that would use computer algorithms to scan social media and other online materials to automatically flag immigrants and visa applicants they deemed undesirable—and continuously surveil the activities of those allowed into the U.S.

Three organizations—the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Center for Media Justice—took action to convince DHS to abandon the initiative. They brought together a coalition of dozens of social justice organizations and more than 50 computer and data scientists, mathematicians and other experts in automated decision-making. The coalition would publicly assert that the idea of breaching individuals’ social media content to determine whether they should be allowed into the U.S. or deported was a xenophobic, racist, chilling and ineffective policy.

Or, as we tagged it, a “Digital Muslim Ban.”

At Spitfire, strategy is our north star—and the success of the #DigitalMuslimBan exemplifies our S.M.A.R.T approach to communications. It was smart strategy that forced the Trump administration to abandon its dream of using software to continuously and automatically monitor immigrants and flag them for investigation.

Here are five lessons learned from our work on behalf of immigrant rights that you can apply to any cause worth fighting for. 

1. Start with a clear understanding of the issue.

This is true about any communication strategy, but especially when complicated government policy and technology are involved.

The issue was this: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials told tech-industry contractors last summer they wanted a system for their “extreme vetting initiative” that could automatically mine social media and the internet at large to determine whether a visitor would be a threat or “positively contribute to society.” However, software cannot make predictions about human behavior, and any attempt to do so would violate civil and human rights, chill speech and introduce arbitrary and discriminatory criteria into the immigration vetting process.

2. Target audiences who can take decisive action.

It’s always most effective to zero in on a few key audiences and tell them what action they can take to make a difference.

After looking closely at the audiences that could be tapped on this issue, the coalition knew exactly where to take aim: the businesses that might bid for the surveillance work. The strategy was to extinguish the initiative by exerting pressure on potential technology vendors as well as DHS. Then, the coalition turned its attention to Capitol Hill—specifically, key legislators whose constituencies would most be affected by the program, and legislators on key oversight committees for DHS.

3. Leverage existing public opinion to your advantage.

Spitfire reframed this new form of extreme vetting to call it what it really was: a Digital Muslim Ban. This built on previous successful efforts to make clear that every iteration of the Trump administration’s travel ban was discriminatory.

The coalition then worked to develop messaging to make highly technical information more accessible and educate audiences on the pitfalls of the technology: It wouldn’t work and it would discriminate. The groups submitted a joint letter to DHS signed by dissenting researchers from major technology firms and academia calling the Digital Muslim Ban “neither appropriate nor feasible.” In addition, the coalition put together a second letter from civil society groups urging potential vendors, such as IBM, not to engage in the initiative.

4. Use the opposition’s own playing field to defeat them.

Spitfires communication strategy centered on earned media and social media, the very venue where the DHS policy would play out.

To publicize the joint letters, Spitfire supported a press conference and media outreach plan that resulted in both national and regional coverage in outlets such as Reuters, The Intercept, Gizmodo and The Hill. This outreach leveraged Spitfire’s deep connections in the mainstream media as well as targeted outlets that cover technology and public policy.

Spitfire also helped the coalition take to the internet with a #DigitalMuslimBan social media campaign, which included the engagement of key online influencers such as Sarah Kendzior, Brian Root and Access Now. Over two days in November 2017, Spitfire monitored the social media landscape and recorded 5,367 social mentions using relevant terms, including #digitalmuslimban, DHS extreme vetting initiative and IBM petition. Word spread quickly about what the administration proposed to do.

5. Celebrate your wins but keep your eye on the ball.

The intense negative response to the plan pressured corporations and businesses against applying for the work. IBM publicly stated in fall 2017 that the company “would not work on any project that runs counter to our company’s values, including our long-standing opposition to discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.”

More importantly, the mix of public pressure and business revulsion forced the Trump administration to backpedal. ICE realized no such technology exists—and that it would be extremely expensive to develop it—and announced it would instead seek contractors to manually review the online profiles of immigrants and visa applicants. And in May 2018, the administration formally announced it was no longer seeking machine technology as part of its extreme vetting program.

The battle against the Digital Muslim Ban and similar initiatives is far from won. The manual process ICE has proposed has its own dangers, and the administration’s discriminatory activities show no sign of slowing down. But the success of the Digital Muslim Ban campaign proves that good can still prevail. And at every turn, Spitfire will keep fighting to protect the rights of immigrants and their families.

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

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