Tackling online disability hate
Victims demand actions while reports of disability hate crime on the internet rise
"Once a man – I'm sure he was a man, although online you never really know – sent me a tweet with a picture of a baby with a really large face, who obviously had a medical condition, and said 'what a cute baby you were, cherub’".
Victoria Wright has a severe facial disfigurement, a disability that means she has a very large jaw. Her Twitter account is nearly seven years old and has more than 3,000 followers. It is her professional public profile, but also the target of many online abusers.
“It’s quite upsetting when you get a notification, you go to check and it’s people being rude and abusive… Always about my facial disfigurement”, she says.
Victoria is also a disability rights campaigner. She is involved with the charity Changing Faces and works to make a difference for people with the similar experiences to hers.
She is also often interviewed on TV and radio, and it's most often after these public appearances that she receives more online hateful messages, 10 to 20 times a year, she explains.
Abusive messages towards a disabled person can be legally considered hate crime. They are any crime perceived to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on someone's disability.
Online disability hate crime tripled in three years
Reports of hate crime against disabled people on the internet have risen from 47 in 2015 to 190 in 2017. Online disabilist hate crime has seen the biggest change (304% increase) in comparison to other hate crimes strands. Faith-related hate crimes reports rose a 240%; homophobic, 209%; racist, 184%; and transphobic, 88% hate crimes.
Online cases represented 5% of this type of reports last year, according to data released by 26* of the 39 English police forces through FOI requests. These forces cover an area where nearly two thirds of the population in England live.
As a whole, there are more race hate crime offences (834 cases happened on the internet in 2017), followed by crimes targeting sexual orientation (281) and religion (221).
Interpreting these figures as a mere increase in crime, however, would be misleading.
For Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, a rise can actually represent an improvement. "The levels of such incidents haven't increased, what has increased is the confidence that people can report disability hate crime", he says. But he is not that positive about any confidence rise regarding online cases.
More online abuse than official reports
Although hate crime can be reported on police stations, via phone, online via True Vision, with the help of a third-party reporting centre or even through Twitter, all the stakeholders agree that disability hate crime is still underreported.
This is the main reason why it isn't that easy to measure the scope of online abuse towards disabled people.
Anne Novis, chair of Inclusion London, has been working and campaigning on disability hate crime for decades. She is dedicated to raise awareness in the police and other agencies and she assures this is a very important task because "police often don’t record crime against disabled people properly".
"There is a lack of awareness in the police", she says. "It is sometimes the case of not being bothered to record it right or not understanding what hate crime against disabled people is".
"Nobody takes it seriously enough", says Stephen Brookes talking about online cases. "There isn’t recognition of what ongoing abuse on social media can have on a victim".
He thinks that "unless it’s an ongoing and systematic attempt to destroy a person’s credibility or a continuingly bully or attack, the police seem very reticent of doing anything about it. It is too complicated and costly for them".
Some police forces are aware of their deficiencies on this topic. In an inquiry examining online abuse and the experience of disabled people in the Petitions Committee of the House of Commons, Superintendent Edward De La Rue, from Sussex Police, said part of the problem for them was that their officers don’t get this type of cases often, "so there is a challenge in getting their attention and making it clear that it is relevant to them".
Wright and Novis agree on demanding the officers to undergo more training. "I think they don’t easily recognise what obscene means for a disabled person who has received hate crime", says Wright, remarking also the need to "realise the impact that online hate speech can have on people’s mental health".
Different police forces, such as the Metropolitan police, have had different sessions but is not a routine.
For Paul Giannasi, Cross-Government Hate Crime Programme Manager, the problem comes even before the reporting stage. "The disability hostility element needs to be identified early", he said during the inquiry.
He also manages the new national online hate crime hub, from which they "want to be more proactive" and "go after people when there isn’t a crisis". This hub, like the one earlier created in London, helps officers with jurisdiction and technical issues, such as approaching them to the apparently anonymous suspects.
But these are tasks that can only be done after a hate crime is reported and flagged correctly.
"The amount of nastiness online against disabled people is unbelievable" – Anne Novis, chair of Inclusion London
But not only the police are behind crime and incidents underreporting. In many cases, disabled people don't come forward.
Anne Novis says that "some people don’t know what hate crime is and many do know but they cannot report it all, it would be impossible". For Stephen Brookes, another reason is that disabled people think "so few can be done, so why bother?", a thought that he shares with Victoria Wright.
Although having seen all sorts of things on the internet – such as memes with people with disfigurement, videos of her on Youtube, photos to mock her and even a forum where people talked about having seen her in real life – Victoria has never reported online hate crime to the police. "I’ve just left them alone because it’s upsetting to know they are there but what can you do really?", she says.
She adds that this would change if she had a thread. "If felt that they were continuingly being abusive" – for example, getting new accounts after blocking them – "I would report that to the police because I would consider that to be harassment". Luckily, she hasn’t had to do that yet.
The role of social media companies
Instead of reporting to the police, what Wright does is report malicious content to the service provider. Most of the time she gets a response from Twitter where they explain if they've found a breach of the rules, but she regrets not being notified of the outcome. "You are never told if they’ve deleted the tweet or they’ve suspended the account or what they’ve done", she says.
But Victoria reminds that reporting a tweet for being hateful based on disability is a very recent feature. Just last April and after months of campaigning, disability was added to the other “protected category” considered by Twitter.
There is a shared call for initiative and stricter rules from social media. Paul Giannasi thinks about automated solutions. "If somebody is being targeted individually […] it should not be beyond Twitter to be able to say that if somebody uses this @ address, it will not publish any tweet that has one of these 40 words in it".
Victoria Wright suggests more temporal or permanent suspension of accounts would detain some people of being abusive. "Having looked at these people, a lot of them are just mates having a laugh. If you suspend their accounts they will not be able to do that, or they will but they'll have to set up a brand-new account and that means losing all their followers".
She also asks for more publicity around successful convictions of malicious communications via social media with hate motivations. De La Rue said that, from feedback received, when doing so "people pay attention and notice that the system as a whole has taken an offence seriously and responded to it appropriately".
"Whether you like it or not, just keep of social networks. Don't put yourself in the line of fire." - Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network
At the moment, the scales for disabled people can tip in favour of coming off social media. The DHC Network coordinator admits that they sometimes recommend people to keep off social networks. "It’s sort of a general consensus although it’s not a happy situation". He feels it will keep being like this until "a more responsible approach is taken by social media companies".
Giannasi considers it to be unacceptable, because a disabled person "perhaps relies on social media for socialising to a greater extent even than other people", but it is the reality. Novis deleted her LinkedIn account and Wright took of her profile picture from Facebook, both to prevent more online abuse.
"This is about changing attitudes in the society", says Anne. For her, the only way out is to change the perception of disability and the language used. "That sort of attitudes will take a lifetime, decades to change, but they should be started at schools".
Victoria also talks about the youngest generations. "We have to get them to realise that for anything they do on social media there are consequences, it can be harmful to people’s mental health. And it has consequences for their future too", she says.
The 26 police forces that answered the FOI requests are Avon and Somerset Constabulary, Bedfordshire Police, Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Cheshire Constabulary, Cleveland Police, Cumbria Constabulary, Derbyshire Constabulary, Devon & Cornwall Police, Dorset Police, Durham Constabulary, Gloucestershire Constabulary, Greater Manchester Police, Hertfordshire Constabulary, Humberside Police, Lincolnshire Police, Merseyside Police, Metropolitan Police Service, North Yorkshire Police, Northumbria Police, Nottinghamshire Police, Staffordshire Police, Suffolk Constabulary, Surrey Police, Thames Valley Police, Warwickshire Police, West Mercia Police.
More detail about the data can be found in this Github repository.
Cover illustration by Victòria Oliveres using FreePik vectors (CC BY-NC 3.0)