On 28 February 2018, the Committee visited the Royal Mencap Society head office to speak to the Mencap digital champions about their experience of using social media. The digital champions are all experienced social media users with learning disabilities.
Participants told us that social media was very important to them. One had met his partner online, others used it for work or to connect with friends and family, particularly those living abroad. They used a wide range of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, as well as writing blog posts for Mencap. Some spoke about initially being afraid following some bad experiences, but they were all enthusiastic social media users who had had specific support and training. Most said that they now couldn’t do without social media.
The participants had various ways to stay safe online. They were most concerned about people they didn’t know trying to friend or follow them. Some specifically chose to follow only people in Mencap or only people they knew offline.
Participants told us that they regularly block people who post abusive comments and content. They described seeing “naughty” content from people they didn’t know or from people pretending to be people they knew. Approximately half had experience of someone “hacking” into their account or using their password. In several cases people found it hard to go back online when their account had been hacked. One person was on their third Facebook account because the previous two had been hacked. They told us that it was easy to get put off.
We were told that it’s difficult for people with learning disabilities to navigate the reporting process. They wanted to be able to talk to someone on the phone to resolve any problems they have.
Accepting new friends or followers on social media was seen as high risk.
Participants had been threatened violence and experienced aggressive sexual advances. In one case, a stranger kept sending a participant friend requests and threatened to “smash her up” if she didn’t accept.
Participants were particularly afraid that photos they posted on social media accounts would be copied and used to create “memes” or “jokes”. They had experienced seeing photographs of people like them used to mock other people. For example, someone pretending that a photo of a person with learning disabilities was someone’s girlfriend, because it was seen as a joke that someone would want to have a relationship with someone with a disability. They wanted measures to reduce the ability of people to copy their photos and use them in this way.
Several people had been sent offensive and sexual pictures and videos which made them feel uncomfortable. They were concerned about being blamed for inappropriate content that they did not create or share. Some had been told that being sent inappropriate images and videos meant that they were as responsible for the images as the person who sent them.
Participants have been told that people with learning disabilities should not be online.
When they reported their abuse to sites like Facebook, they merely received automated replies and in one case they had to resolve the problem themselves and support others who had been affected by it. Companies rarely followed up and if they did, they didn’t tell the person complaining about what was done to punish the abuser.
They told us that the bigger sites, such as Facebook, had improved over the years, but they felt that it was still unsafe if you didn’t know what you were doing.
They felt that repeated acts of abuse should be dealt with more strictly. They felt that people didn’t stick to the terms and conditions of social media accounts. They wanted a stronger clearer agreement that stated that abusive behaviour would lead to people having their accounts closed.
None of the participants had been to the police to report online abuse, but some had spoken to the police about crimes committed offline. We were told that the police had used a lot of jargon when talking to them. One had had to arrange a mediator to help explain to the police what happened and how criminal behaviour affects people with disabilities. We were told that disability hate crime was generally treated as anti-social behaviour rather than hate crime.
Participants were concerned by the amount of pressure put on the police. It was suggested that a specialist team could be established to deal with online issues. This would be preferable to placing more responsibilities on uniformed officers and potentially allow the police to take action earlier.
Participants also wanted the police to have more training in dealing with people with learning disabilities. They felt that adults with learning disabilities were not taken seriously by the police and were encouraged to agree to mediation rather than push for people to be prosecuted for hate crime. They didn’t feel that mediation was appropriate for hate crime.
They told us that Mencap had campaigned to make disability hate crime a specific offence. They felt that it was important that hate crime against adults with learning disabilities in particular was recognised in law.
i)Disability hate crime should be a specific offence.
ii)Politicians and the government should ask people with learning disabilities how to keep people safe online.
iii)Social media platforms should make reporting abuse easier for everyone. People with learning disabilities or other specific needs should be able to identify themselves as having a learning disability and have a different pathway, such as a telephone number, to report concerns.
iv)A code of conduct should be signed before creating a social media account. It should include information about how photos can be used. There should be an Easy Read version of the contract. People who break the contract should have their accounts closed.
v)The police need training on learning disabilities. There should also be a specific police unit to deal with offences online.
Published: 22 January 2019