Using Social Media to Judge People with Disabilities is Inappropriate—for the Government and Individuals

April 8, 2019

Social media—particularly Facebook and Instagram—have been at the very center of storms of criticism lately. However, one aspect of social media has largely been overlooked: how they can affect people applying for disability benefits.

The crux of the problem stems from social media posts which can easily be misinterpreted. Let’s say you see a post from your neighbor down the street. 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?” you grumble to yourself. But what do you know about the circumstances of that photo? Maybe it’s an old photo from five years ago before your neighbor suffered a disabling work injury. Just because the golf photo was posted in April 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 bipolar disorder look like? Social media is often 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.

Given the unreliability of social media posts, it is concerning to those of us who advocate for the disabled to learn that the current 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 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.” With active pressure from the White House and from some members of Congress who favor drastically cutting Social Security disability programs, the SSA has said it will publish a final rule on this issue in the spring of 2020.

Many advocacy groups for the disabled have serious reservations about where the SSA may go with this. Their concern and our concern is that SSA will substitute leaping to inaccurate inferences from social media postings in lieu of careful evaluation of complex medical conditions and a balanced review of all the facts. Those misgivings are shared by the last Senate-confirmed Social Security commissioner, Michael J. Astrue, a Republican who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “Social media sites are not exactly clear and reliable evidence,” Mr. Astrue, who stepped down six years ago, said at a Senate hearing in 2012. “Facebook puts up phony websites under my name all the time.” That, he said, is “why you need professionally trained fraud investigators” to evaluate the information.

From time-to-time clients, will tell us about a person they know who has qualified for disability benefits, and yet they seemingly appear to be happy and well (sometimes in social media posts). “Why can’t I get disability when I need it more than she does?” they ask. It is important to bear in mind that every single disability case is different. There are a multitude of different medical conditions, and even the same medical condition often manifests in different levels of severity. There are different treating doctors and different Social Security doctors reviewing the medical files. People have different work histories, different educational backgrounds and they are of different ages. And there are different judges deciding different disability cases. Therefore, we strongly believe it is a waste of your time and emotional energy to compare your situation to anyone else’s. After all, you wouldn’t want them asking those same questions about you without the facts. Instead, we urge you to focus on your situation. If you want to know whether you may qualify for benefits, contact the local Chicago Social Security Disability lawyers at Nash Disability Law.