VOLUME VISocial Media Vetting From Landlords: Is It Ethical?By Nikki Davidson

Tweets, likes and shares have fast become the modern social currency. According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, at least 72% of adults currently use at least one social media platform.

What people post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok matters, as it reveals the intimate and personal details of the poster's daily lives. Even before Cancel Culture became a talking point, those publishing and sharing questionable content were already facing hefty consequences for their social media choices.

According to a CareerBuilder survey, seven in 10 employers have used social media to research job candidates during the hiring process. More than half admit that they've found content that caused them not to hire candidates. Employers considered provocative or inappropriate photos, information about drinking or drugs, and discriminatory comments to be the most common social media red flags. However, 12% of employers confessed that they didn't hire candidates because of a high posting frequency. Another 22% of employers didn't hire candidates because they thought their screen names were unprofessional.

It only seems natural that property owners would also want to know a little more about the social reputation of the people who plan to live inside their properties. But is it legal for a landlord to snoop into a potential lessee's social media accounts? This article will explain the fragile line of the law.

Lawsuit Risks for Landlord Social Media SnoopingThere's nothing keeping landlords (or anyone else in the world) from searching the name of a person on social media. With just a couple of clicks, landlords could find an extensive amount of information about a potential tenant that they wouldn't find in a rental application.

However, even if landlords dig up something they don't like on that would-be tenant's social media, that doesn't mean they can legally use it as a reason not to rent to them. Such a decision could open them up to a possible lawsuit for breaking federal housing laws.

According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords may not discriminate due to race, color, religion, disability, familial status or national origin. To turn a renter away from an available unit, they'll need proof that the person wasn't the best candidate in a tangible way, such as a false claim on the rental application, low credit score, poor references or rocky tenant history.

Many renters report that they don't get a fair chance at housing, and landlords who pour over renters' social media accounts may end up inadvertently exposing themselves to content that reveals information they wouldn't usually encounter about the applicant's personal life.

According to data from the National Fair Housing Alliance, in 2021, housing discrimination complaints most often came from people who were disabled, followed by renters who were discriminated against due to race and familial status. Personal information about each of these protected statuses could be revealed on social media and cause a landlord to make an illegal decision not to rent to them.

Social Media Could Reveal Lies on the Rental ApplicationPeople may feel comfortable sharing the most intimate parts of their lives on social media. However, the platforms have become a tremendous investigative tool even for professional detectives.

According to the Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies Report, which was put together by the nonprofit research organization the Urban Institute, 70% of law enforcement agencies have investigators that gather evidence via social media for their criminal inquiries.

Landlords could use social media in the same way—unless the tenants’ accounts are private. Landlords cannot legally ask tenants to unlock their accounts for a background check beforehand; require them to be mutual followers, friends or connects; or require them to keep social media accounts available to the public during their leasing period.

However, any public social media information is fair game (as long as it doesn’t go against Fair Housing Rights) to make sure they will abide by the leasing terms.

For example, if a tenant moves in and posts pictures smoking cigarettes in a smoke-free rental, it could end in an eviction or fine. Or, if a tenant has a prior professional background in legally selling or using recreational or medicinal marijuana in other states, tenants must still abide by the landlords’ rules about smoking while in the property. (Recreational marijuana is still illegal in Florida and Texas.)

Landlord preferences also apply to pet owners. Animal updates online are a significant Achilles heel for renters who have fibbed to their landlords about keeping pets in the rental. According to a survey conducted by pet food manufacturer Mars Petcare US, 65% of pet owners post on social media about their pets an average of two times a week. Thirteen percent of pet owners admit that they release social media posts about their pets even more than their human family.

Meanwhile, a study from animal welfare nonprofit FIREPAW, Inc revealed that 82% of tenants with animals struggle to find a place to live with their pets. With a lack of pet-friendly housing available, landlords should be prepared for tenants who may not be honest about their four-legged roommates. If there's a strict no-pets policy, landlords could run a simple social media search on their tenants to verify that they do not own any pets before drafting up a lease.

Studying a prospective tenant's public social media accounts could also verify employment and potential rental history. The profiles may also hint at whether tenants are truly living alone or if they've secretly allowed additional tenants to join them in the rental. In that case, a landlord could use social media as proof to issue an eviction notice (or rent increase) for unauthorized roommates on the property.

Should Social Media Accounts Be An Application Requirement?Landlords typically ask renters for a lot of information, including their references, employment history, credit score and bank statements, but should they also start asking for social media web domains? The request could reveal sensitive information, as some social media users do not post on profiles that are open to the public or under their legal name.

At this time, the only landlord-tenant laws on the books in Texas and Florida deal with privacy related to in-person visits and what kind of notice a landlord needs to enter a dwelling to make a repair or walk-through check.

There are no laws that stipulate how often a landlord can check up on a tenant's public social media account nor anything that prevents a landlord from keeping a close eye on information anyone in the public can access. Quiet enjoyment of their homes does not mean that their social media gripes are off limits. And in a world where what goes online stays online, tenants should be aware that their online reputation is just as important as a good rental history.