Tougher laws are needed to combat the “horrendous, degrading and dehumanising” abuse disabled people are being subjected to online, a new report finds.
An inquiry by the Commons’ Petitions Committee found that disabled were keen to engage with others on social media but were often driven from online platforms by extreme levels of abuse from others.
The report, triggered by a petition started by celebrity Katie Price, also recommended that disabled people get the same protection under hate crime law as those who are targeted due to their race or religion.
Price felt powerless when her son Harvey was repeatedly targeted by trolls and her petition attracted some 221,914 signatures before it closed early due to the 2017 general election.
It aimed to tackle rising levels of trolling and online abuse generally but highlighted how disabled people were particularly disadvantaged.
Price has been calling for the government to adopt ‘Harvey’s Law’ and make “make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders.”
The committee has made a series of recommendations and and MPs have said the current law should be strengthened.
The Labour chairwoman of the committee, Helen Jones, said abusers rarely faced consequences and allowing social media companies to self-regulate had failed.
She said: “Our inquiry into online abuse and the experience of disabled people has shown that social media is rife with horrendous, degrading and dehumanising comments about people with disabilities. The law on online abuse is not fit for purpose and it is truly shameful that disabled people have been forced off social media while their abusers face no consequences.
“There is no excuse for the continued failure to make online platforms as safe for disabled people. Self-regulation has failed disabled people and the law must change to ensure more lives are not destroyed.”
The committee heard how online abuse can destroy careers, social lives and cause lasting damage to people’s health.
Google, Facebook and Twitter gave evidence to the inquiry, as did representatives from the police and disability campaigners.
MPs say the government must accept that self-regulation of social media has failed and, alongside social media companies, consults with disabled people on a new digital strategy and review of hate crime law.
Social media companies must also accept their responsibility for allowing toxic environments to develop unchallenged.
The Petitions Committee report stated that:
The Disclosure and Barring Service should hold a record of people who have been convicted of a hate crime against a disabled person.
Government should work harder to challenge stereotypes and prejudices about disabled people, including promoting proportional representation of disabled people in its advertising.
Hostility towards disabled people is often based on a perception they are an easy target who can’t contribute to society. Police are also too quick to categorise disabled people as “vulnerable”.
Disabled people the same protections under hate crime law as those who are targeted on the basis of their race or religion
The government needs to review the law on exploitation within friendships or relationships, so-called “mate crime”, which MPs found can lead to financial, physical and sexual exploitation.
‘Shameful’ response of football clubs and police
MPs also found organisations unwilling to act when a disabled person was targeted by trolls.
A high proportion of abusive content against disabled people, including Harvey Price, was related to football, the inquiry discovered, but footballing organisations were reluctant to act.
The report stated: “It is deeply disappointing that the footballing organisations with whom we raised concerns about abusive behaviour expressed no interest in addressing the problem. Their lack of response is shameful.”
Police officers also failed to fully understand disability and the government should investigate the experience disabled people have had when reporting crime.