Almost all respondents to our survey – 96% of them – have seen a photo, meme or other content on social media that mocked someone’s appearance

Social media

Social media is undoubtedly a force for good, and has revolutionised communications and friendship the world over. Changing Faces has been an enthusiastic adopter of social media, encouraging users and champions to use the various platforms to share their stories and amplify campaigns and personal stories.

But as the media are never afraid to report, and occasionally sensationalise, there are some who use social media to attack people targeting a range of personal attributes, including their appearance. Our survey revealed that people with a disfigurement experience shockingly high levels of abuse and ‘trolling’, and that there is very little faith in the ability or willingness of social media websites themselves to tackle the problem and provide help and support.

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Social media is 99% about image. I feel intimidated by it so although I use it I’m very careful with no posting pictures of myself.

Almost all respondents to our survey – 96% of them – have seen a photo, meme or other content on social media that mocked someone’s appearance. We might take heart that only one in ten had been the target themselves, but that is still a disturbingly high figure and could account for why three in ten (29%) respondents said that their social media profile photo or avatar is not an image of their face.

“The whole world has spent 56 years telling me I am too ugly to live. I am unlikely to put my picture up anywhere now. Bitten too many times.”

“I was likened to a dead squirrel.”

“After appearing on a television programme about my condition, an individual contacted me via social media to express an opinion that I should not be allowed on tv.”

In January 2017, Changing Faces was alerted to a meme that was being shared on Facebook and Twitter, mocking a man from Glasgow who had an unusual appearance caused by a congenital condition. It had been shared thousands of times, and Changing Faces reported the post to both social media sites.

Within 24 hours, both sites said that the image didn’t breach their community guidelines or terms and conditions. Even the obvious breach of copyright – the image had been taken by the man’s brother – didn’t warrant its removal from either site.

It’s unsurprising, then, that respondents have little or no faith in social media websites’ ability or willingness to tackle ‘trolling’ on their platforms. Numerous respondents told us that their images had been used without their consent and in some cases had been turned into memes. In every case, the social media platforms failed to take any action.

There is recognition that social media can be a useful tool for keeping in touch with friends, creating online communities, and for empowering people to tell their stories and make their voices heard. But almost all the comments we received acknowledged the difficulties in ‘policing’ the sites and preventing those with negative intentions from causing harm.

“[Social media] has opened up a lovely world of connecting with other people with 
disfigurements. But has also opened up the world for those who use it to abuse others anonymously. I love social media but I’m glad it wasn’t around when I was a teenager.”

“I think in most aspects [social media is] a positive thing to connect people, but I think memes can lead people to ridicule people with disfigurements very easily without them really considering what they’re doing or saying.”

“I think social media is a great outlet to raise awareness and show people how to remain positive when they are di erent. It can also encourage negative comments which is disheartening.”

Recommendations

4a Social media platforms must revise their community guidelines and terms and conditions to ensure they take a zero-tolerance approach in tackling trolling and abuse that targets people with a disfigurement. They should organise face equality training for any staff who deal with user complaints.

4b Social media platforms should take decisive action against individual users who repeatedly troll and abuse people with a disfigurement. This should include temporary or permanent exclusion from the platform.

4c Building on recent efforts to tackle threats of sexual violence on social media, the Home Office and Ministry of Justice should ensure that agencies in the criminal justice system better protect people with disfigurements from people who abuse online.

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