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Social Media Profiling Can Lead to Discrimination

Nov 26, 2013

Social media bias findingEmployers who background their job applicants on social media are more likely to discriminate against Muslims, an effect that is even more pronounced in conservative states and localities.

The study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers involved thousands of fictitious resumes and dummied-up Facebook profiles to portray candidates as either Muslim or Christian. A second part of the experiment involved candidates whose profiles indicated they were either straight or gay.

Muslim candidates, the researchers found, received far fewer interview invitations in states and locales considered conservative than did their otherwise identical Christian counterparts. No similar effect was noted in the comparison of gay and straight candidates.

“We find more extensive bias against the Muslim candidate than the gay candidate, and significantly more bias among employers in Republican states than employers in non-Republican states,” say researchers Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of information technology and public policy at CMU’s H. John Heinz III College, and Christina Fong, senior research scientist at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Overall, Muslim candidates got 14% fewer interview opportunities than did the Christian candidates. But, because as recruiters and job seekers know, getting a call for an interview is so rare, the researchers say the difference is not statistically significant. “However,” the researchers say in the study, “We find evidence
of discrimination linked to political party affiliation.”

According to their findings, “In more Republican-leaning states, only 2% of applications by the Muslim candidate received interview invitations compared to 17% for the Christian candidate.”

Locales were considered conservative based on whether the Republican or Democrat candidate won the popular vote in the 2012 presidential election. Of the 50 states, the researchers segmented the data into the 10 most strongly Democratic states, 10 most Republican, and classified the balance as mixed.

The Christian candidates had a clear advantage in the 10 most strongly Republican states — Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. However, there was no perceptible difference between gay and straight candidates.

It’s worth noting that the 10 conservative states cumulatively had fewer posted job openings than did other parts of the country.

Social media bias application distributionWhen the researchers analyzed the data by county, they found a similar result: 8% of the Muslim candidates were invited for an interview compared to 21% for Christian candidates. The county-level data, report the researchers, “show no evidence of discrimination against the gay candidate.”

“Our survey and field experiments show statistically significant evidence of hiring bias originating from information candidates shared on their online profiles,” Fong said. “Both by itself and controlling for a host of demographic and firm variables, our Muslim candidate was less likely to receive an interview invitation compared to our Christian candidate in more politically conservative states and counties.”

Although Acquisti and Fong have no way of knowing how many or which of the employers actually did a search of social media before deciding whether to interview the candidates, they estimate that between 10% and 33% of the employers did. Their estimate is derived in part from the way the study was conducted; religious affiliation and sexual orientation could only be deduced from the social profiles. Prior to submitting some 4,000 job applications, they conducted an online survey asking participants to review both resumes and the manipulated profiles. The questionnaire they completed tested their biases.

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