U.S. Government Considers Snooping Into Social Media Posts of Disability Recipients

The administration is quietly working on a plan to use social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to help spot people who claim Social Security disability benefits without actually being disabled. Up to now the Social Security Administration (SSA) has not allowed its investigators to use social media to evaluate whether or not a disability applicant qualified for benefits. The agency maintained that Social Security Administrative Law Judges are not adequately trained to assess photos and other information on social media posts. However, the SSA’s stance may be shifting. In its budget request to Congress last year, the agency stated it would study the use of social media snooping as a way to “increase program integrity and the identification of fraud.” The White House and some members of Congress who favor drastically cutting Social Security disability programs are encouraging the SSA to move forward with this plan.

Given the unreliability of social media posts, this policy shift is concerning to those of us who advocate for the disabled. Photos and social media posts can easily be misinterpreted. Let’s say you see a post from a person who is collecting disability benefits. He is pictured smiling while standing on a golf course, but you know that he has qualified for Social Security disability benefits for a back injury. How can he be disabled and still able to play golf? But what do we know about the circumstances of that photo? Maybe it’s an old photo from five years ago before that person suffered a disabling work injury. Just because the golf photo was posted in May of 2019 doesn’t mean the golf game occurred in 2019. Or maybe he tried to play golf, but had to hang it up after one hole of agonizing pain. Then his wife asked him to smile for the last photo he will ever get on a golf course and he gamely played along to please her. With computer programs like Photoshop, photos can be easily altered, too, making it difficult to know what is real. Furthermore, drawing conclusions from a social media post about a disability due to mental illness is impossible. What does a photograph of bi-polar disorder look like? Social media is an inaccurate reflection of a user's typical lifestyle. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter users only post content they want the world to see and most people would prefer to present a brave face rather than the harsh and, oftentimes painful, reality of living with a disability day after day.

The SSA has said it will publish a final rule on this issue in the spring of 2020.

 

Sean D. Cuddigan
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SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska
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