To inform the inquiry into online abuse and the experience of disabled people Scope hosted a web thread on its community webpages for two weeks from 6 February 2018 and the Committee held a roundtable event in Westminster on 20 February 2018. The aim was to find out more about the experience of disabled people using social media. Organisations that advocate for disabled people were asked to promote the event. 26 people attended, the vast majority of whom identified as disabled.
Attendees had very positive attitudes to social media, describing it as “great for disabled people”. Most were regular and enthusiastic users of social media. Those with learning disabilities were less likely to be regular users of social media, but those who did use it expressed similar views on it’s positive benefits as other attendees.
The way in which social media has opened up career opportunities for disabled people was a particular theme. We were told that it made it easier for them to get freelance work, which we heard was particularly important for disabled people due to employment discrimination and difficulties of working with fluctuating long-term conditions.
We were told that social media has “transformed disability activism” and given them a louder voice. Disabled people are now able to organise and campaign in a way that was impossible only a few years ago due to the mobility needs of many of them. As well as campaigning against national issues, such as changes to the benefits system, disabled people can publicise when they have been let down on transport, when they have access issues or when they are abused on the street or online. We were told that before social media, activist groups were much smaller and restricted to those who could physically attend meetings. Social media was described as an important force in mobilising people to act and get in touch with their local MP.
Those we spoke to described using social media to meet new people and stay in touch with friends and family. We were also told that many disabled people can feel socially isolated. There is rarely enough support in place to enable people with mobility needs to socialise, so being able to connect with people online was particularly important. People also described the mental health benefits of being able to share stories with people who had similar experiences.
We were told that social media was particularly important for people with rare conditions. Some attendees had never met anyone with their condition in “real life” but had been able to link up with people over social media. This was described as essential to understanding treatment options and keeping “sane” through connecting with people who understand their lives. Those who described these experiences told us that it would be impossible to make those connections without social media.
Social media was also used to offer support to parents and others who wanted more information about disabilities. In particular, we were told that parents of disabled children often wanted to speak to adults with the same disability, so they could imagine their child’s future. Doctors often have a poor understanding of how disabled people live, so can give parents very negative information, such as telling them that their child would never be able to hold down a job or even that their child probably wouldn’t live to adulthood. It was important for those parents to hear from adults living with the same condition. We heard that disabled people on social media give hope to parents of disabled children.
We were told about “fantastic, funny, articulate” disabled people on social media who helped to challenge stereotypes of disabled people by being themselves. We also heard that public attitudes to disability were often so negative that any examples of disabled people living “normally” were a challenge to stereotypes.
Many of the people we spoke to did not reveal that they were disabled on online profiles. Some told us that this was due to fear of abuse, but more people mentioned that it was due to potential employment or social discrimination–people told us that many non-disabled people don’t want to be friends with or start a relationship with a disabled person.
Those who decided to reveal their disabled status after not mentioning it online described a change in how people responded to them. There were accusations of benefit fraud and people would address them as it they had access to large amounts of money or extra services, such as free cars. People began to get suspicious they were faking their disability. They also began receiving abusive messages related to their disability.
Most of the social media users who attended the event had received abusive messages. Many of them had received abusive messages related to their disability. It was common to be told to kill themselves or to be threatened with being killed. We were told that because people didn’t think of disabled people’s lives as valuable, people felt that killing a disabled people was less serious than killing a non-disabled person. Some were asked “nicely” whether they thought that they would be better off dead. We were also told that even threats to kill online were not taken seriously by the police. People we spoke to had been told simply to block offenders.
People talked about how common it was to see ableist language or photographs mocking disabled people being shared. We were told that it created a “toxic environment” online. Those who attended regularly saw “jokes” and “memes” about people like them. People told us that it was sometimes difficult to remember they were valuable human beings when they were regularly seeing dehumanising words and images.
People also described people approaching them on social media to “help” them. Much of this was around “miracle cures”.
The dangers of online exploitation were also brought up. The adults with learning disabilities we spoke to told us that they felt vulnerable to “mate crime”. “Mate crime” was not brought up by the disabled people without learning disabilities. Every user of social media who attended the event and had a learning disability had experienced “mate crime” that started online. We met disabled women who were targeted on online dating sites and sexually and financially exploited. We were also told about men who had been charged to undergo religious conversion. We also met people who had transferred their savings to people they met online. Support workers who attended told as that their primary concern was women being targeted on online dating sites by people who wanted to use a relationship or have a child with to assist with immigration problems. Their other major concern was the targeting of adults with learning disabilities by extremist groups who wished to recruit them.
Most of those we spoke to had had bad experiences reporting online abuse to social media companies or the police. People told us that they felt that they had to disclose their conditions and intimate medical details in order to be taken seriously.
Some of those who attended told us that it was better to attack back than wait for someone else to intervene. Those who took this view had had bad experiences of reporting abuse with no result. Although others talked about this adding to the “toxic environment.”
Everyone we spoke to felt that disabled people are particularly affected by online abuse. It was felt that disability doesn’t have the general support that offences against other protected characteristics have. We were told that when people see racism on Twitter, people will jump in and say “You can’t say that!”, but the same things doesn’t happen with disability.
We were told that it’s easy to find offensive words about disability on Twitter. People felt that ableist language was so normalised that even very offensive language was seen as “banter” and used between friends. Using extremely offensive words about disability on Twitter and Facebook was not, in the experience of the people we spoke to, enough for someone to be banned or warned.
Twitter not listing disability for a reason that content might be abusive was brought up. One attendee had been in contact with Twitter and been told that the omission was a mistake, but nothing had been changed. Those who were activists with a public profile told us that they were more successful at having content removed when they were open about their public profile. They described being transferred to PR departments after complaining about abusive content. They told us that they felt that it was evidence that social media companies were more concerned with their image than with their disabled users.
Many people complained about not knowing what had happened to content after they reported abuse. They told us that they had no confidence that their reports were being taken seriously.
There were mixed views about whether online abuse should be a specific criminal offence. Participants wanted people to be prosecuted where appropriate, but were generally unsure whether current laws needed to be adapted to include online spaces fully or whether a new online-specific law was needed.
Participants told us that social media companies are after profit and would therefore act only if they were legally required to do so. We were also told that it was impossible to predict which social media company would be popular next, so the Government needs to ensure that legislation covers all social media. People also wanted social media companies to be required to deal with online abuse to take the burden off of the police.
The difficulties of defining “grossly offensive” were brought up. It was felt that the threshold did not take account of how abuse affects disabled people, but rather reflects what non-disabled people think of as offensive.
Many attendees brought up the need for a specific offence for disability hate crime, and for disability hate crime to be taken more seriously.
A couple of attendees mentioned the Law Commission’s call for a review of hate crime legislation. They questioned why it still hadn’t happened. It was felt that the Government was dragging its feet over reviewing hate crime legislation and putting in place appropriate protections for disabled people.
Published: 22 January 2019