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Inside the strange story of Immigrant X

How a radical activist used social media and fictional drones to troll the anti-immigrant right

Mobile app helps illegal immigrants escape stop-and-search checks’. That was last year’s immigrant-baiting headline in the Daily Express. The Stop & Search2 app, created by an anonymous trio of activists known only as Immigrant X, appeared in headlines all over the UK, with describing them as a “strange and impressive group” that demonstrates people power in action. The group has even piloted a scheme called Drones for Social Justice, which sends drones to disrupt border agency spot checks. 

The thing is, none of it was true. The app, which you can still download on Android, doesn’t work. The drones aren’t real, either. And Immigrant X – far from its description of a three-person network of anti-border activists in an unnamed “Western democracy” – is a fiction. Albeit a fiction with 10,000 Twitter followers.

On social media and their blog, the group documents their drone actions and attempts to evade detection in real-time (it’s unclear how many of its Twitter followers know it is fictional). In reality, Immigrant X is a one-man job: the work of Amsterdam-based, Australian-born creator Rob Simpson, who describes it as both fiction and "faction" – a plausible fictional narrative with roots in the real world. The blurring of fact and fiction is deliberate: the idea is to force viewers to engage with and question the narrative. It’s a provocative experiment in narrative, created through halfway-believable apps and social media accounts, and lent credence by unknowing journalists.

Rob, who is based in Amsterdam, has worked in humanitarian organisations for 13 years. Immigrant X is the second of his ventures into social media-based storytelling  – the first was Inepd, a fake humanitarian organisation that parodied an organisation where “the marketing of aid became more important than the aid work itself”.

But Immigrant X is a more vitally engaged work, in part because of the anti-immigrant rhetoric so widely spouted today. We might not live in a world where Immigrant X exists, but its plausibility alone raises doubts about the moral justice of the world we live in. The manifesto on the Immigrant X website sets out a vision of a world without borders, where people don’t live in fear of deportation, immigration crackdowns or mounting xenophobia. As tabloids stoke fears of immigration and politicians pander to right-wing demagogues, Immigrant X envisions a place where critical resistance is not just right – it’s necessary. 

Dazed Digital: How did Immigrant X get started?

Rob Simpson: I always wanted to write in some way about open borders and the immigration system. I thought that Twitter and blogs, characters and a narrative could be a good way to explore issues around immigration and the immigration systems of western countries.

DD: Did you expect newspapers to report on Immigrant X as if it was real, particularly the Stop & Search2 app?

Rob Simpson: The stories themselves are plausible, so I expected those following Immigrant X to have to question what is real as well as what is an appropriate response to the authorities and the immigration system. I was however not expecting a major outlet to report the app as real or functional. When approached by journalists or anyone I have always written to them explaining the nature of Immigrant X. The journalists concerned did not contact me about the app and printed stories anyway.

DD: Why focus specifically on immigration?

Rob Simpson: Personally I see a great injustice in the way undocumented immigrants are treated by governments and sections of host communities. Immigration also draws in so many themes, such as labour rights, discrimination and xenophobia, globalisation and nationalist politics.

DD: You describe it the project as a 'faction'. What do you mean by that?

Rob Simpson: The story lines are plausible or based on real life but are constructed to be fictional and are not happening in real time. The idea is to make actions alive and accessible to an audience and to allow them to engage with the story in real time; I think faction is the only way to do this.  

There are activist organisation undertaking similar actions as Immigrant X: providing safe houses and supporting undocumented immigrants. So what is presented in Immigrant X reflects a reality today of resistance against the immigration systems across the western world. 

DD: How useful is fictional narrative in combating anti-immigration, anyway?

Rob Simpson: For me personally it allows me to progress my thinking on open borders and this form of activism. The reaction for and against Immigrant X is maybe what makes this project interesting where the audience engages and is part of the narrative. Realistically I think the chance of impact from Immigrant X is small in terms of creating more space for some form of rational discussion on immigration – which seems currently very hard to come by.

DD: You've kept the details of the story - like what country it's set in, etc - pretty vague. How deliberate is that?

Rob Simpson: It was a choice form the start to keep the location vague, giving the story more options and I hoped a more diverse audience The treatment of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers is quite consistent across the western world as governments learn from each other and the business of securing borders becomes a lucrative international business. I have received emails from people in pretty much all English-speaking countries thinking Immigrant X is active in their country, asking how they can help or participate. So in that way I think keeping the location open was useful as I think the story can be claimed by many people from many national as applicable to their experience.