2020 in Review: State of Social Media Screening

2020 in Review: State of Social Media Screening

By Tricia O'Connor

Only two more weeks of 2020 to go! Before we ring in the New Year, we thought it would be interesting to play a little game. Last January, we released our annual background screening trends where we made some bold industry predictions in five areas: Continuous Monitoring, Social Media Screening, Gig Workers, DOT Drug Testing, and Salary History Bans.

Five weeks later, the world seemed to suddenly screech to a halt.

COVID-19 has interrupted every “normal” business operation we relied on to make our predictions. So, we’re revisiting our trends to see if the pandemic messed them up.

ICYMI, last week we covered gig workers. This week we’re tackling our second most popular prediction: social media screening.

Here’s what we predicted:

“The rise in social screening in 2020 is really a matter of numbers. There are billions of users across the most popular social platforms – Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, LinkedIn, and the granddaddy of them all, Facebook, which recently hit two billion users. 

It makes sense, then, that your digital persona is being examined just as critically as your criminal record. And – again back to numbers – there’s cold hard data to support the push.

Reasons employers won’t hire:

40% – provocative photos

36% – drinking or drug use

31% – discriminatory comments

30% – criminal behavior

All data from CareerBuilder 2018 Survey

Simply put, the correlation between people who use social media and employers who screen social media will continue to climb.”

Breaking this down, we made three claims about social media screening in 2020:

• The number of people using social media would climb

• The number of employers embracing social media screening would grow…

• …as would the numbers of employers trying DIY social screening, with potentially damaging consequences

What 2020 Proved about Social Media Screening

More people turned to social media and used it with reckless abandon

As of November 2020, Facebook had more than 2.7 billion monthly active users. Combined with the other three platforms it owns (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram), Facebook reported 3.2 billion monthly users in Q3 of 2020. Depending on what source you use, social networking sites have a combined estimate of 3.2 – 3.6 billion users.

Remote work skyrocketed in 2020, prompted by the disruption caused by COVID-19. So did employees’ unfiltered access to social media. Combined with other events like social justice protests and the election, social media became increasingly volatile, says Bianca Lager, the President of Social Intelligence, a Santa Barbara-based Consumer Reporting Agency. EBI partners with Social Intelligence to legally screen job applicants’ social media accounts to help protect workplace culture and prevent harassment.

“People’s emotions are heightened right now. And there is more violent content being posted, specifically people are being more threatening online. You may consider something you post to be pretty passive, but an organization may have to take it really seriously,” Lager said in our September post, Social Media Snafu: HR Nightmare or Teachable Moment?

In the months pre-COVID-19, Social Intelligence found about 1 in 15 people had some sort of red flagged online content. Its current numbers are about 1 in 9. Violent behavior results have also climbed. Pre-COVID-19 Social Intelligence reported about 1 in 60 people had posted something violent. Now it is finding 1 in 33.

Lager says aggressive verbiage and displays of use of force or violence are the highest climbers.

Employers relied on social media screening in more deliberate and meaningful ways. 

The rise of social media as a recruiting filter could not be underestimated in 2020. Before the anxiety of COVID-19 and the resurgent attention on racial equality even began, 70 percent of employers used social media to screen candidates during the hiring process.

A recent survey by Social Intelligence revealed employers are most concerned with these types of social content:

• 65% Intolerance

• 45% Potentially Violent

• 35% Sexually Explicit

• 35% Potentially Illegal

With high rates of unemployment, more people working from home, and flared tensions because of recent events, the number of people spending time on social media surged and with it the need for a clearly defined social media policy. 

HR professionals in charge of hiring and overseeing employee conduct standards needed these policies to help them navigate the rise in employees’ online behaviors.

Here are some best practices HR professionals followed:

• They established a clear focus for social media screening, and they consistently implemented it and documented each use. 

• They ensured any screening reports did not include information that could be construed as discriminatory toward the candidate (or classes of candidates). 

• They maintain a social media policy and applied the same criteria to potential hires as they did to current employees.

• They put red flags into context

• They employed the services of a consumer reporting agency, tasked with maximum possible accuracy and other Fair Credit Reporting Act requirements. 

And this last bullet point leads us to a final observation…

DIY social screening came with compliance consequences. 

Snooping people’s social media profiles is nothing new, but with the turbulent content being posted in 2020, it became increasingly necessary to limit that tactic in hiring procedures. Employers needed to shield their hiring manager from performing a DIY social scrape and avoid a discrimination claim. 

Most social media profiles include information that could be considered discriminatory if used in a hiring decision. Here are some examples:

• Race

• Color

• Gender

• National Origin

• Religion

• Disability

• Citizenship

• Pregnancy

• Age

Some states offer additional protection for:

• Sexual Orientation

• Weight

• Marital Status

Employers are not allowed to consider certain information like race, gender, religion, or other protected classes when hiring. But this stuff – and lots of other information that can, but shouldn’t, play into earning a job – is almost always readily available through social media. Because this information is visible, even the most seasoned recruiters and talent acquisition professionals can unwittingly find themselves defending their actions in court.


You can’t “unsee” what you see, according to Lager of Social Intelligence.

Lager says a growing number of states have laws regulating employer use of social media information. For example, California, Colorado, and New York have laws protecting employees’ and applicants’ activities during off-duty hours. And there are restrictions on employers from asking for user IDs and passwords.

The bottom line is a social media background check should focus solely on workplace relevance and should be conducted by an accredited CRA. 

How’d We Do?

Last January we said the number of people using social media would climb as would employers’ needs for compliant social media screening.

Even though final year social media usage data is still being compiled, EBI’s predictions for the HR community were valid. The combination of COVID-19, social justice movements, and the election created a volatile social media landscape that required employers and employees alike to take extra precautions.

EBI is Here For You

You can tell a lot about a person from their social media content. It’s our job to provide you with compliant information you can use for hiring decisions. 

If you’d like more information on the social media screening services we provide in partnership with Social Intelligence, please click here. We’d also love to chat with you about our other background check services and our return-to-work safety solution.

For more information about EBI, click here

About the Author

Tricia O'Connor

Tricia O'Connor

Writer. Digital marketer. Storyteller. An award-winning writer and editor, Tricia O'Connor is the Marketing Content Manager at EBI. Tricia worked as a broadcast and print journalist for nearly two decades writing and producing programming for high-profile networks like ESPN Radio, History Channel, and Hallmark Channel, as well as contributing editorial work to publications nationwide. Tricia joined the EBI marketing team in 2019 and is responsible for content strategy, development, and engagement. Tricia earned a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a proud undergraduate alumna of Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

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