Disabled receive ‘horrific’ online abuse

Dark side of the net: Price’s petition states that online abuse affects people “from every walk of life”.

Former model Katie Price has launched a campaign to outlaw online abuse after her disabled son, Harvey, was subject to cruel bullying. What can we do about the dark underbelly of social media?

“They find him an easy target,” said Katie Price, a former model who is now leading a crusade against online abuse. She was speaking about her 16-year-old son, Harvey, who has been subjected to hundreds of messages containing “the most horrific things”.

Harvey is partially blind, autistic and has a genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome.

“He can’t speak to defend himself, I can,” said Price.

She has launched a petition, signed by 220,000 people, to “make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders.”

Her campaign has been supported by Parliament’s Petitions Committee, which says current rules about abuse on social media have “failed disabled people”.

“Social media is rife with horrendous, degrading and dehumanising comments about people with disabilities,” said Labour MP Helen Jones.

Currently, UK law bans malicious communications, threats and inciting hatred, but MPs say these rules are incoherent and hard to enforce. There are also loopholes as some types of abuse are not illegal, for example, if it does not cross into direct threats.

Price and the committee want to close these loopholes by making online abuse a separate offence.

Other high-profile figures suffering from the plague of internet harassment are Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton. Their social media accounts have been inundated with threats and nasty comments since tabloid newspapers reported that the women were in a feud.

The problem is so severe that the Duchesses’ staff have sought help from Instagram on how to manage the abuse. In response to the news, celebrity magazines have launched a #HelloToKindness campaign against internet trolls.

Emily Nash, royal editor for Hello! magazine, says the campaign “isn’t about censorship. It’s about raising the standard of conversation.”

“Before you comment, think. Is it helpful? Is it kind? And would you say it in real life?”

While all kinds of people suffer abuse online, misogyny is particularly common. A woman is abused on Twitter every 30 seconds.

In total, Facebook says it removed 5.4 million pieces of hate speech between April and September in 2018.

Bile and bullying

Will stricter laws stop online trolls? Politicians can make all the laws they want, but it takes cooperation from tech companies to clamp down on perpetrators. Last year, only four out of 14 social media firms turned up to talks with the government.

Hate laws reserve harsher punishments for crimes motivated by race, religion and other factors. Is a crime worse if it is motivated by discrimination, even if the act itself is the same? Should it be illegal to insult someone? Or tease them? Where exactly is the line between freedom of speech and harassment?

You Decide

  1. Should social media companies be punished for hate on their platform?
  2. What is the best way to tackle online abuse?

Activities

  1. Read the Week link in Become An Expert, and write a response to this question: Why is it controversial to criminalise that “which may be unpleasant, may cause offence but which is not inciting violence”? Research the principle of freedom of speech to inform your answer.
  2. Class debate: “This house believes that, overall, social media has had a negative impact on the world.”

Some People Say...

“It’s like the Wild West, the internet. There are no rules.”

Steven Wright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
MPs have backed a campaign by former model Katie Price to tighten laws on online abuse and hate speech against disabled people. A petition about the plans was signed by 220,000 people. Price decided to launch the campaign due to the barrage of cruel online abuse directed at her 16-year-old son, Harvey, who has complex disabilities.
What do we not know?
Whether stricter laws would be an effective way of clamping down on online abuse. Many forms of abuse and hate speech are already illegal, but it can be difficult to enforce due to online anonymity. Some have suggested banning anonymous accounts, but this could stop whistleblowers and other people speaking out about oppression who fear being exposed.

Word Watch

Petitions Committee
The Petitions Committee is a group of MPs that consider public petitions submitted to Parliament. The committee can write to the government pushing for action on a particular issue, or put forward a debate in the House of Commons.
Malicious
Intending to do harm.
Inundated
Overwhelmed by lots of.
Tabloid
A type of newspaper that traditionally has smaller pages than a broadsheet newspaper. They are now characterised by a focus on sensational, popular stories.
Feud
Headlines included The Sun’s “Meghan made Kate cry”.
Trolls
A person who starts arguments or posts insults on social media. Many troll accounts are anonymous, so the perpetrators are hard to track down.
30 seconds
According to the Troll Patrol survey, carried out by Amnesty International and Element AI.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.