Here’s Why the Government Absolutely Should Not Monitor the Social Media of Disabled People

Blue background with computer data. In the middle is a keyhole with a green eye staring directly through.

The New York Times recently published an article about a proposal that would allow government administrators to use evidence taken from social media to deny or revoke disability benefits from applicants. As someone who worked as a Social Security Disability attorney before I became too sick to work, and occasionally writes freelance about these same issues when my health allows, this is a terrible idea for a number of reasons.

First, it’s important to understand a little bit about disability benefits. For simplicity’s sake I will focus on one program, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). SSDI is the program that most workers and employers pay into and you can only collect benefits once you have contributed for a long enough period of time. Essentially, it’s an insurance program like your car insurance or health insurance except it is run by the federal government. Increasing scrutiny on applicants by accessing their social media would be like your car insurance company combing your Facebook after a car accident. Geico could use a picture of you at a party holding a beer to deny your claim for a car accident that occurred two weeks later.

To collect benefits, you must prove that you are “disabled” as defined by Social Security law. As you can imagine, there are tons of laws that determine what specifically has to be proven, and they are just as fascinating as any other area of Social Security law. Essentially, workers need to prove that they are unable to work due to a health condition that is expected to last one year or more or result in death. “Work” in this context means full-time work that is “regular and sustained.” (This is of course defined to death in case law and regulations.)

So in my case, I have chronic illnesses that flare up sometimes. In the past I have been able to hold jobs for a month or two, but then my immune system freaks out and I’m in bed for days, weeks, or months. Under the law, this should qualify me for benefits. However, in practice judges make the requirements so strict that I have seen truly disabled clients be rejected for benefits because they are able to take care of their basic hygiene, feed themselves, have kids, or post on social media. Allowing social media posts to be included as evidence is another way for judges to find a pretext to deny benefits even when a person qualifies under the law.

Another issue is that I, like many disabled people, have good and bad days. Sometimes I can dance for a little bit. Sometimes I am unable to walk to my own kitchen. Which days do you think I am posting about more? Of course my social media will make it look like I’m able to do more than I actually can, just like everyone else’s social media makes them look more active, cooler, and richer than they really are.

Disabled people are already frequently isolated and are likely to rely on social media to have connections with other (disabled and non-disabled) people. When I am too sick to socialize, Facebook is a literal lifeline at times. Forcing us to quit or be constantly paranoid that something we say or do will be used to cut off our (meager) benefits.

This idea is also a terrible use of resources. The government will need to pay for the increased oversight. These resources could be given to disabled individuals directly instead of being used to bloat the government system that the Trump administration pretends to be against. Especially when the incidence of disability fraud is less than once percent. The oversight will likely cost more that the money saved by actual fraud.

Even if there is a cost savings, we can’t just look at the bare numbers when we make decisions about these programs. These programs exist as an agreement that our country has made to its citizens and those who genuinely qualify for disability should be able to receive the benefits that they paid into. While increased social media surveillance of beneficiaries may reduce the number of people receiving benefits, many of us who are actually qualified under the law will be disenfranchised. If this goes into effect, money that should go to disabled people will instead just go to employ surveillance which won’t help anyone.


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Katie Tastrom is a disability lawyer, writer, and activist. Her work has appeared at Slate, NBC News, Ravishly, and others. She writes frequently about living with chronic illness. You can find more of her work at katietastrom.com.