‘The role of fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ is arguably dwarfed by the general elevation of feeling over thinking as the benchmark for truth.’ Jamie Bartlett
Last week I made the mistake of alerting a person on Twitter, and the person who had just retweeted her tweet to several thousand others, that the article she had just posted was factually inaccurate. Sometimes inaccuracies are minor and unimportant, but this one concerned the suggestion that 4000 people died within a few weeks of being declared ‘fit for work’ by the Department for Work and Pensions, latterly debunked by the independent organisation Full Fact. In reply I was accused of defending the Tories and then blocked.
Now, I’m not sure it would be fair to refer to the initial misreporting of these statistics as ‘fake news’. More accurate and reasonable would be to call it ‘confused news’. The statistics on which the articles were based were released by the DWP following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request and are not clear. But while there is anecdotal evidence of benefits administration and decisions being linked to avoidable deterioration in health and possibly hastening death, the FoI data does not itself provide any conclusive evidence to these ends. In sum we presently have no way of quantifying how many people may or may not have died for reasons connected to the administration of their benefits claim (see this letter from the Statistics Authority to government recommending government carries out research to these ends). The numbers provided by DWP are essentially meaningless in this respect. Despite this, the fact that the evidence also fails to prove that people didn’t die for reasons related to the administration of benefits has allowed belief to fill the gap. Such is the deficit of trust between campaigners and government that the latter stands guilty until it can prove its innocence. The bigger the gap in the evidence, the greater the belief that it is guilty as charged.
Hence it is in the circulation and recirculation of these reports, even after they had been debunked, that so called ‘post truth’ has taken hold. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016, defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
We have seen this elsewhere in the disability world in recent times. For example, the belief that disability hate crime is rising exponentially and as a result of ‘scrounger rhetoric.’ Official statistics from the Crime Survey, analysed by EHRC, show overall incidence of disability hate crime has declined – including through the period when so called scrounger rhetoric was most prevalent in the press – from an average of 77000 per year to an average of 56000 per year. At the same time there has been rise in disability hate crimes recorded by the police from 1748 in 2011-12 to 3629 in 2015-16. It is the statistics regarding recorded crime that are seized upon and misrepresented. For example, in 2015 the Scotsman reported a 270% rise in disability hate crime in Scotland. In fact this wildly overstated a pretty paltry increase of 129 more reports in 2015 than 2011.
It is said that truth is the first casualty of war and I’m quite sure some consider themselves justified in peddling untruths in order to hurt the government. Sadly, I believe the only people they are hurting are themselves and other disabled people.
The pre-occupation of campaigners with deaths and violence is about crafting a narrative of a ‘cruel government’. It rests on an assumption that by emphasizing the alleged gravity and scale of what is happening to disabled people then the media, politicians and public will be persuaded – or shamed – into action. In fact, evidence suggests it has the opposite effect, as the Frameworks Institute have explained:
‘Crisis framing emphasizes the overwhelming scope of a problem, using numbers, facts, and vivid examples as evidence of great urgency. Using crisis language is a common strategy; communicators assume it will boost people’s sense that an issue must be solved and increase support for solutions. Communications materials in this sample used crisis language to emphasize the extent to which people with disabilities face discrimination, disadvantage, and abuse.
FrameWorks research and other social science studies have consistently found crisis language to be ineffective. Rather than causing people to want to fix a problem, crisis frames actually immobilize people leading them to conclude that the problem is too big and too overwhelming to solve and that no viable solutions exist. In this sense, crisis language is likely to depress, rather than elevate, issue engagement and support for solutions.’
At the same time as being an ineffective way to win support, it is also hugely destructive to disabled people themselves while undermining the ability to hold the responsible to account and to focus on solutions.
It is well known for example that people’s fears about being a victim of crime tend to exceed the actual probability of their becoming a victim of crime and that these fears act as a constraint on their lives. Headlines erroneously screaming about 270% rises in disability hate crime needlessly compound its impact on the lives of disabled people, while obscuring the real problem: the gap between overall incidence and that reported to and recorded by the police. That is to say, the real issue that must concern us about disability hate crime is not that incidence is rising – it isn’t – but that over 95% of all incidents continue to go unreported and hence not enough is being done to bring incidence down. That’s where the focus of campaigners should be.
Similarly with respect to policy and the administration of social security benefits, very real problems clearly exist which have and continue to cause deep anxiety among those who are the object of the Work Capability Assessment. There is evidence implicating the tests with respect to people’s subsequent decision to take their own lives. But let’s imagine then that a person with mental health problems, already anxious about their upcoming test reads the following quote in an article about the DWP’s policy on suicides:
‘This (the WCA) is now the most concerted attack on disabled people in western Europe since Germany’s Chancellor Hitler signed the executive order Aktion T4 in 1939 to murder disabled people the state judged ‘unworthy of life’
A supposedly credible source of disability news carries a quote suggesting that the WCA is not simply a flawed mechanism to determine benefit entitlement, but a deliberate attempt to kill people, albeit by their own hands, of equivalence to the action of the Nazi’s and it purports to be concerned about people’s mental wellbeing and anxieties? Circulating the unsubstantiated claim that 4000 (or sometimes it is suggested 10400) people died following a determination that they were fit for work also seems likely to cause untold damage while having marginal impact on policy or public opinion.
What does hurt government is the twin facts that (a) the WCA has cost taxpayers a fortune while not reduced public spending and (b) fails to ensure that the right people get the support that they need. That again is where campaign communications should focus.
As I have written before, the connective tissue in these narratives is of disabled people as victims – as vulnerable objects. They invite pity where once disability rights proudly rejected it in the pursuit of equal citizenship.
This is not to disregard the indignities suffered and harm done to people by a botched welfare reform agenda or by disability hate crime. It is not an argument to hide terrible things under the carpet or to not press government to provide the evidence to answer our questions. It is plea simply to be responsible, to focus on solving the problems as they are and to avoid making bad situations far worse.