The New York Times is reporting that the administration of President Donald Trump has been secretly developing plans to use social media like Twitter and Facebook to monitor Social Security disability recipients and try to catch people out who aren't actually disabled. A line in a budget request from the Social Security Administration (SSA) last year shows that the agency is studying the feasibility of using social media to "expedite the identification of fraud." The report said that officials in the administration have been working closely with SSA officials to strengthen and streamline the proposal.
The idea is to implement some form of federal-level surveillance, most likely run by an algorithm or AI that would monitor social media posts for incongruities that don't match up with a disability payment recipient's claims. For instance, if you're receiving disability payments because of a back injury, a Facebook post with photos of you running in a 10k or playing golf could prove problematic.
"There is a little bitty chance that Social Security may be snooping on your Facebook or your Twitter account," said St. Louis lawyer Robert A. Crowe, who has represented disability claimants for over 40 years. "You don't want anything on there that shows you out playing Frisbee."
Surprisingly, some conservative politicians and organizations who are generally opposed to government overreach support the program. Republican from Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford is one, and the conservative Heritage Foundation has also come out in favor of the program.
Advocates for the disabled were quick to criticize the program, noting numerous problems with it. First and foremost, it's hard to tell if a recently posted photo is current or old.
"Just because someone posted a photograph of them golfing or going fishing in February of 2019 does not mean that the activity occurred in 2019," said Lisa D. Elkman, who is chairwoman of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities.
Not only that, as with most social media users, people with disabilities are more likely to post photos that were taken when they are feeling healthy and happy, not when they are suffering and wheelchair-bound or confined to bed due to pain.
Currently, over 10 million people receive Social Security disability insurance payments, totaling $11 billion a month. It's important to note, however, that the Social Security fund was created and is maintained by payroll taxes those same beneficiaries pay or have paid in to.
The last Social Security commissioner who was confirmed by the Senate, Michael J. Astrue, said that the program sounds like a recipe for disaster, given the infamous unreliability of truth in social media.
"Social media sites are not exactly clear and reliable evidence," Astrue said at a Senate hearing in 2012. "Facebook puts up phony websites under my name all the time."