The Current State of Social Media Background Checks

Worldwide, the average person spends nearly two and a half hours every day on social media. That time can account for an incredible volume of posts, tweets, pins, videos, and more—virtually every kind of content you can imagine online. Not only do we share an incredible amount of information, often in "public" digital spaces, but we also quickly lose sight of it. The pace of online life usually means many people have a voluminous post history and very little idea of what it contains.

For an increasing number of employers, that data represents a potentially useful trove of information to consider during the hiring process. A 2020 survey found that 67% of responding professionals said that they look at applicants' social media accounts during the hiring process. A different study conducted in 2020 found that 90% of its subjects used social media background checks.

Some businesses choose to handle this process manually and in-house. Others choose to outsource. There has been an uptick in the number of screening companies that offer social media checks, often with various claims. Some say they use machine learning and AI to automatically identify and flag problematic language in a user's posts, such as racism or misogyny. Summary reports would then let employers decide if someone's behavior is so objectional, it is worth denying them a job.

It is clear that many employers today will consider social media—even with the risks it entails. Some do it entirely above board, ensuring they gain consent. Others simply look regardless—a potential violation of the FCRA. That isn't the only potential violation, either.

Browsing personal profiles could easily expose a hiring manager to potentially prejudicial information unrelated to the job itself—information often related to protected classes. The risk of discrimination in hiring, intentional or accidental, naturally rises when you begin to incorporate personal speech into the process. 

Employers aren't the only ones who want to take a closer look at social media posts. A newly passed law in New York has raised eyebrows and triggered murmurs of a potential challenge on the grounds of constitutionality. Under that law, people applying for a concealed carry gun permit would have to provide the government with a list of all social media accounts used within the last three years. Officials would then need to comb through this data to seek out potentially disqualifying information.

Though the law went into effect on September 1, 2022, it was not in force for long. A judge issued an injunction to bar multiple parts of the new law, including the social media provision, from coming into force. A suit against the law has already been filed in court. State authorities appealed to a higher federal court to stay the injunction with litigation ongoing. Whether police will ever use social media to vet gun permit applicants remains an open question.

From employment to government, social media background checks are increasingly seen as a viable tool. However, concerns about privacy and freedom of speech remain, and opponents continue to mount vigorous opposition to peering into private posts. For those in charge of hiring, it is only growing more important to understand these checks' pros and cons and all the potential pitfalls.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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