Social Media Screens: Feasible at Scale and Legally Viable

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on February 16, 2016 The recent tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino, the interjection of mass immigration bans into the political melee, and overall concern about security in an age of migration and refugees, have provoked an outbreak of discussion about how online social signals can help protect society. Much of this discussion has veered toward the apocalyptic and much has been, simply, wrong.

As two people working in this area, Ben Mones and I felt an obligation to step in to present a more useful perspective on using social for safety.

First, many businesses are already using social to understand historical patterns of behavior. Today, these insights are borne of largely manual searches. While it would be impossible to manually track the social media accounts of all prospective immigrants or a 20,000 employee workforce, the technology definitely exists today to search and analyze public social media profiles in ways that could massively strengthen government background checks and hiring more broadly.

Further, from a legal perspective, it’s also absolutely possible to do these checks.

So if social data is useful and legally viable -- and these checks become even more important given the lack of info that comes out of traditional background checks -- why hasn’t a standardized, software-based approach taken hold of the market? The core issue, we feel, isn't technology or legality, but the question of this data coming alive for a business or in government in a meaningful way.

Social Media Screens
Social Media Screens

Let’s rewind. Why are companies and governments turning to social media in the first place to make important decisions about people? For one, the candidate or potential citizen is by and large in control of how they present themselves when qualifying for citizenship or for a job. A perfected resume, pre-qualified references and crisp attire can make a person seem like someone they are not, if only for that moment of critical contact.

Additionally, traditional background checks themselves are built upon a logical fallacy. They examine the absence of information to make a decision about a pattern of behavior, or who someone is. In fact, they examine the negative (white space in a photo) to support the positive (the subject in the photo).

Saying that Joe is not a felon today does not mean that he won’t become a felon in the near future. Background checks are helpful when you need to slam on the brakes, but in many cases they do not reveal the patterns of behavior that could lead to a positive or a negative outcome for that person. The social graph, properly sourced and balanced, can reveal, through historical patterns, a deeper insight into potential, future behavior.

Executives and government officials are still learning how to make information come alive, in new and powerful ways. We’ve eclipsed the age of information where “access to data” became a key differentiator for both organizations and people. Many executives are granted access to data that takes the form of small, incoherent chunks and still only nominally organized in the form of spreadsheets, projections, data waterfalls and simple-variable models.

Given the proliferation of data, the temptation is great to simply grab a large hammer and start looking for nails, rather than to purposefully build a coherent structure. Now that we have this info, how do we use it in a responsible way that embraces the safety, privacy and rights of the individual?

In part 2/2 of our segment on social media screens, we will outline the best practices for using social information in responsible ways.

Mike Edelhart is the managing partner of Social Starts, one of the most active moment-of-inception venture funds in the US. A pioneering media and Internet startup executive, Mike became widely known in tech circles as the original Executive Editor of PC Magazine.

Ben Mones is the CEO and Co-Founder of Fama Technologies Inc., which offers cloud-based software that utilizes the publicly available, online record to help businesses hire the right people, with a major focus on trust and safety.