We cannot allow vile abuse to force disabled people offline
It’s clear that self-regulation of social media has failed to protect disabled people. It’s time for the law to change, writes Helen Jones
This week the Petitions Committee, which I chair, published our report “online abuse and the experience of disabled people.” It details a toxic online culture which is driving disabled people, not just from social media, but all kinds of online platforms.
The UK Parliament e-Petitions site is the most popular parliamentary site of its type in the world. On average it gets around 1,400 petitions a month. Its debates are the most watched debates in the House of Commons. It brings issues to Parliament that would not otherwise be considered, can lead to changes in Government policy, and most importantly give voices to people who feel they don’t have one. Petitions through the Parliament and Government site can lead to sustained action, like our report.
Yet sometimes I am truly shocked by the fact people are not given a say in the issues that affect them most. Social media can be an incredible resource for disabled people to communicate, campaign, challenge stereotypes and share experiences. Online platforms allow access to many services, for people to manage their careers or to shop. For disabled people these online resources are often vital.
I was shocked that, again and again over the last year, we heard that disabled people were not consulted or considered during the development of internet safety policies. The most shameful finding of all is that while we heard disabled people are being forced offline, it was often unclear whether their abusers face any consequences.
The inquiry was triggered by a petition on started by Katie Price, which attracted 221,914 signatures before it closed early due to the 2017 General Election. It talked about online abuse directed at people from all backgrounds, but also highlighted disgusting abuse directed at her disabled son, Harvey. The petition called on the Government to “make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders”.
The experiences of Katie and Harvey highlighted a wider problem, one that not enough people seem to be listening to.
During the inquiry, my colleagues and I on the Petitions Committee took oral evidence from Google, Facebook and Twitter, representatives from the police and disability campaigners. We heard that disabled people didn’t feel the law gave them the same protections from hate crimes. After listening to all the evidence, it was clear self-regulation has failed disabled people and the law must change.
Disabled people told us of receiving messages such as “Why don’t you just kill yourself.” We would not expect people to avoid their town centre, local park or place of work to avoid sustained abuse or violent threats, so how can this be acceptable online? In this modern world online spaces can often be as important as physical spaces. The law needs to accommodate this.
This matters because the internet and social media can have a positive impact. We also heard many stories from disabled people who told us how online platforms are used to support one another, share information, combat abuse and challenge misinformation.
I hope the Government will agree with our report that there is no excuse for the continued failure to make online platforms safe for disabled people. We expect action from social media companies, who must be much more proactive in seeking out abuse and offensive content.
We also want the Government to review the law in this area as it is clearly not fit for purpose. They must do so after consultation with disabled people for too many decisions about them are being made without any discussion with them. The law must change.
Helen Jones is Labour MP Warrington North and chair of the Petitions Committee