Online abuse and the experience of disabled people Contents


Our role

1.We oversee and act on e-petitions submitted to the UK Parliament and Government through All such e-petitions that get over 10,000 signatures receive a UK Government response. We automatically consider all e-petitions that receive over 100,000 signatures for debate in Westminster Hall.

2.E-petitions allow members of the public to bring their concerns directly to the UK Parliament. We can also act on e-petitions by asking the Government for more information, hearing from petitioners or witnesses and making recommendations to Government in reports like this one.

The petition

3.The inquiry was prompted by a petition started by Katie Price, a media personality and mother to a child with multiple disabilities. The petition, signed by 221,914 people before it closed early due to the 2017 General Election, reads:

Make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders

Trolling is a major problem in this day and age. People of all ages and background suffer every day, including my family—especially my son Harvey. I have tried my best to expose people and even had two arrested but nothing was done and there were no repercussions or penalties for this behaviour.

This does not affect just high profile people it affects everyone from every walk of life from young children, teenagers, people at work, husbands and wives. This abuse includes racism, homophobia, body shaming and a whole range of other hate speech.

This petition is an important topical issue and I want it to help bring justice to everyone who has ever suffered at the hands of trolls. Help me to hammer home worldwide that bullying is unacceptable whether it’s face to face or in an online space.

4.The UK Parliament is already looking at whether abuse on social media requires new laws and different approaches to enforcement and regulation. Paragraphs 5 to 8 set out some of the excellent work being done by our colleagues on other Select Committees and work being undertaken in Government. Our aim in this inquiry is to build on that work and draw out the specific concerns of disabled people. We see our role as highlighting in Parliament those issues that may not otherwise receive the focus they should. Ms Price’s petition raised an issue that seemed in danger of being lost in the conversation—the experience of disabled people online. Ms Price has five children. One of her children, Harvey, is biracial and has multiple disabilities. It is surely no coincidence that it is Harvey who suffers a torrent of online abuse.

Other work on online abuse

5.In March 2014, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s report on online safety stated that clarification or consolidation of the law on online bullying would be welcome.1 In 2017, the Home Affairs Select Committee, in its report Hate crime: abuse, hate and extremism online, criticised social media and technology companies for not doing enough to remove illegal content, review community standards or improve the quality and speed of their responses to reports of dangerous and illegal content.2 A further Home Affairs Committee inquiry on online abuse and hate crime was ongoing when this report was agreed.3

6.Separately, in 2016, the Law Commission consulted on whether the law on online communications needed reform. In October 2017, it stated “The failure of the law in this area disproportionately affects women and minority groups.”4 In November 2018, it concluded that the criminal law needed reform to protect victims from online abuse.5

7.In October 2017, the Government launched a Green Paper on an Internet Safety Strategy. In May 2018 it responded to the consultation on the strategy with new proposals around a social media levy and a code of practice.6

8.We recognise that a lot of work touching on online abuse has taken place and is ongoing. Yet, despite this considerable activity over the past few years, our inquiry suggests there has still been no substantial change to the experiences of disabled people or to the scale and nature of the obstacles they face navigating social media and the criminal justice system.

Our inquiry

9.Our inquiry began, like all our inquiries, by meeting the petitioner and finding out more about why they started the petition. We heard from Ms Price and her mother Amy, and had the pleasure of meeting Harvey, who is the subject of much of the abuse that led to the petition. It is worth stressing that this inquiry began in part because a child with multiple disabilities is the subject of relentless abuse online. Our inquiry revealed that his experience is sadly common.

10.We took oral evidence from Google (also the parent company of YouTube), Facebook and Twitter. We chose these companies because of their size and market share, but we heard during the inquiry that people also experience abuse on other smaller platforms. These may have lower standards and be under less scrutiny. We also heard from Paul Giannasi OBE, Cross-Government Hate Crime Programme Manager; Detective Inspector John Donovan, Online Hate Crime Hub, Metropolitan Police Service; Superintendent Edward De La Rue, Brighton and Hove Division, Sussex Police; Amy Clarke, Digital Assistant, Mencap; Rob Holland, Parliamentary Manager, Mencap; Andie Gbedemah, Public Affairs Officer, Dimensions; and Anne Novis MBE, Disability Campaigner and Chair, Inclusion London; and received 16 formal written submissions. That formal evidence is only a small part of the information we considered.

11.From the start, the voices of disabled people have been central to the inquiry. Most of our evidence has come from people who self-identify as disabled. We ran six events around the UK, in Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Swansea and two in London, to hear from people face-to-face. We met people with physical, neurological, developmental, sensory and learning disabilities in all four nations of the UK.

12.In February we held an open event for disabled people in Westminster to scope our inquiry and discuss their experiences directly. In July we published a series of draft recommendations to the Government and put them out for consultation—the first Select Committee to do this. We held a series of consultation events around the country, in Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Swansea and London, to find out what disabled people thought of our draft recommendations. For the final London event, we invited all our witnesses, including representatives of social media companies and the police, to hear directly from disabled people about what they thought of the recommendations and the changes they wanted. We were pleased that representatives from Twitter, Facebook and the Crown Prosecution Service attended.

13.We usually do a lot of digital engagement to inform our inquiries and debates. Due to the sensitive nature of the inquiry, we chose to keep our online engagement to a minimum. Scope hosted a chat thread on their boards. The House of Commons Facebook page hosted a conversation on what people thought about making online abuse a specific criminal offence and we created an online survey to allow people to give their views on the recommendations.

14.The conversations we had with disabled people have shaped our report and recommendations. We know that it was difficult for people to share their worst online experiences, but we can assure them that it has made a difference. We appreciate the time, trouble and anger of those who spoke to us around the country, as well as those who emailed or took part in one of our online discussions. We have quoted them anonymously where appropriate and their voices played a key part in shaping our findings. We thank you.


15.Three points about language came out very strongly from our consultation events. Firstly, there was disagreement about how best to refer to disabled people. Our consultation document referred to both “disabled people” and “people with disabilities”. We heard strong views in favour of and against both terms during our consultation hearings with disabled people. In this report we have taken the views of most people we heard from and used “disabled people”, but we accept that there are differing views.

16.Secondly, “disabled” is a complex identity to define and to be defined by. Those we spoke to self-defined as disabled and included people with physical, neurological, learning, sensory, cognitive and developmental disabilities. However, the people we met were clear that they were not disabled by their physical, mental or psychological differences, but by the barriers in society. Some of those we met were vulnerable and in need of care, but the vast majority were well-informed, competent, capable adults, who nevertheless described being patronised, ignored and experiencing outright hostility due to disability. Disabled people are a diverse group, united by the difficulties of negotiating a world that is not designed for them. We have tried to reflect this in our report.

17.Thirdly, conversations with disabled people suggested that we needed to take a broad definition of “social media”. Abuse of disabled people happens in all online social spaces, including newspaper website comments boards, online chat rooms, online dating sites and voice and text chat in online games. Although we focused on social media in the inquiry, our findings and recommendations apply equally to all forms of online social interaction.

This report and next steps

18.This report is divided into three chapters. The first sets out what we heard about the experience of disabled people online. It describes the importance of the internet to disabled people, the extent of the abuse they face and the relationship between online and offline abuse and prejudice. The second sets out the response to online abuse from social media companies and the Government and some of the reasons disabled people feel their voices have not been heard within that process. Finally, we look at the law as it relates to disabled people and online abuse. We particularly examine the petition’s request for a specific offence of online abuse and a register of offenders. We also discuss the status of hate crimes against disabled people.

19.Following the publication of this report, we will schedule a debate on the petition in Westminster Hall. MPs will be able to question the Minister about the Government’s approach to online abuse, the petition’s requests and our findings on the online abuse of disabled people.

1 Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Sixth Report of Session, Online Safety, HC 729, para 97

2 Home Affairs Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2016–17, Hate crime: abuse, hate and extremism online, HC 609

4 Law Commission, Thirteenth Programme of Law Reform para 4.25

Published: 22 January 2019