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Exploring power and migration: The United States’ spatialised digital border system


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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

In recent years, global politics has increasingly focused its attention on the movement of migrants and refugees, driven by economic reasons, or with the goal of studying abroad, escaping from persecution, terrorism, climate change, or natural disasters, amongst other factors. Concurrently, the war on terror launched after 11 September 2001 provided a justification for states to tighten their borders and increase migration controls. Therefore, migrants are seen as part of the problem to control and manage, as the state regulates and restricts the movement of those it deems problematic. Territorial border systems, however, are believed to be no longer effective for keeping the ‘bad ones’ out, leading to the continuous advancement of border apparatuses. The western states’ response includes transforming territorial borders into smart border systems and extending migration controls into the digital sphere. 


Human beings rely on the everyday use of the internet and portable electronic devices to access their social media and to interact with people within this social sphere. The use of social media and the advancement in mobile technology and internet access have incorporated border systems into our daily lives. Borders have become more elastic and continue to stretch away from the territorial social sphere (which Michel Foucault called ‘milieu’) to the digitalised social space (which I call ‘spatialised milieu’, that is, the social sphere localised in the digital space) reaching directly into human lives. Through their connection to portable electronic devices, social media and the internet become connected biopolitical spaces where the sovereign exercises its power through the extension of its border systems. The widespread use of social media makes it an avenue to further reach into human lives.


The United States extends its digital smart border system into the social media space to make decisions on who is allowed to enter and who is not. The US continues to stretch its borders into human lives and bodies, which, according to Foucault, become the object of power and political strategy. Through the digital expansion of its border system, the United States claims power over migrants’ bodies by risk-profiling their activities in digital social space while processing their entry permit applications. The applicants are required to submit their social media information, and, while there is no explicit penalty for those who do not, I argue that the risk-profiling strategy of the US Department of Homeland Security in the digital space contributes to the higher visa rejection rates for migrants from the Global South. Once their social media information is logged, authorities scrutinise the past online activities of intending immigrants and verify their potential connections with risky individuals. The sovereign excludes those believed to pose a threat to the state while including those it considers acceptable. Those labelled as risky subjects become even more disempowered. Their ‘data doubles’ (digital profiles) are circulated within the spatialised milieu, moving faster than physical bodies and reaching other sovereigns through data sharing, which limits their opportunities to further migrate or travel.


Interestingly, the sovereign power is resisted by migrants through the same digital space where the sovereign exercises its power. Since social media is the medium of communication between the people who want to move and those who have moved already, it serves as an empowerment tool to share knowledge, ideas, experiences, and information about alternative migration routes and corridors. 


The changes in global politics following the 11 September 2001 terror attack on the Twin Towers shifted the focus of border policies and narratives from territorial control to more sophisticated risk-profiling techniques through digital border systems. This extension of border systems continues to reinforce the power dynamics surrounding migration experiences. States take advantage of social media to claim power over migrant bodies and disempower those labelled a threat across digital spaces by scrutinising and sharing the online identities and activities of migrants. Since social media connects individuals both with people who are close to them and others they barely know, the state’s subjective interpretation of their contacts with risky persons while risk-profiling migrants’ social lives could result in misjudgments. Although the people who want to move continue to resist state power by using these same digital technologies, states need to find effective strategies to maintain a fairer, more reliable system of border control.

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Felix Akinboyewa

Felix Akinboyewa is a doctoral student at the Department of Political Science, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. He is interested in digital borders and the advanced power of technology as a bordering tool. He has attended local and international conferences on borders, mobility, and (im)mobility.


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