Within the past few weeks there have been several high profile examples of people using social media in such a way that they’ve either ended up under police investigation or in court explaining themselves.
The most recent came last week with a Twitter user, Rileyy_69, earning widespread condemnation after ‘trolling’ diver Tom Daley’s account, sending a series of abusive, insensitive messages. The owner of the account was subsequently arrested and issued a warning by police.
Prior to this an appeal was successful by Paul Chambers who had jokingly ‘threatened’ to blow up Robin Hood Airport after he found the airport closed.
Accused of sending a menacing communication, an appeal against his conviction, supported by several well known comedians, saw the conviction overturned with the judge accepting that the tweet was more an ill advised joke than a malicious threat.
In light of cases such as these, the ACPO lead for e-crime, Chief Constable Stuart Hyde, had denied that there was a need to review laws in relation to online communications after some had stated they were outdated and no longer suited to addressing issues on Facebook, Twitter and other sites that did not exist at the time the laws were written.
I too think that current laws provide sufficient tools for us to deal with any serious issues that arise from people misusing social media and would also add that a little common sense and understanding on behalf of those dealing with reports of ‘Facebook harassment’ and the like goes a long way to stopping issues at their source in a proportionate manner.
Take reported issues on Facebook and Twitter as an example – many officers shudder when they see the word ‘Facebook’ written on an incident log because more often than not the job involves tit and tat exchanges between two parties.
What’s the most sensible resolution in circumstances such as these? Launch a police investigation that could costs thousands of pounds?
Far better, where appropriate, to advise the caller to simply hit the ‘block’ button and cut the problem off at the source. Report the offending account to Facebook too and if they need to they have the power to suspend or delete it.
Considering the number of social media users and the frequency with which reports about sites’ misuse is brought to our attention, we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re making the very best use of our limited resources – chasing up each and every report of ‘mean messages’ I don’t think represents the best use of these resources.
Rather, trying to do so takes officers away from the urgent 999 calls – the ones where people are in danger and need officers there straight away.
Further to this, the internet is a forum in which for whatever reason some people feel they can say things from behind a veil of anonymity that they’d unlikely say elsewhere.
Take arguments that take place under YouTube videos as an example – see how long it takes before the Nazi comparisons begin and then consider that this is the kind of context against which insults are sometimes traded across the net.
Set against this background, investigators need to consider where the line ought to be drawn between messages that are offensive – sometime grossly so – and those that cross the line so that they become illegal.
Facebook attracted controversy not too long ago when it declined to take down groups in which people posted jokes about rape – the question appeared to be one about taste rather than law and the position adopted suggested that the jokes were no doubt offensive, but that they weren’t illegal or against the site’s terms and conditions.
This is not to say though that social media can’t be used to commit substantive offences – it can and when it does happen one issue is that it can be hard to trace the identities of the account holders.
A serious threat to kill made across Twitter illustrates the problem sometimes faced – if the information needed to identify a user is not held in their profile or cannot be obtained through the content of their tweets there is a risk that the investigation will run short of leads.
Social media sites can and do help us with investigations, we have a dedicated point of contact through which we can obtain information, however again when a site only requires an email address and a name to set up an account, both of which could well be false, we only have limited information to work with.
This is one reason why, as CC Hyde suggested, the sites themselves have a responsibility to address problems themselves as they can be in a better position than we are to do so, especially when launching a full blown police investigation is not an appropriate course of action.
As a keen user of social media myself and having seen the benefits of being able to communicate directly with the public, I certainly don’t want to give the impression that the medium is causing more troubles than it’s worth.
The vast majority of account holders make good use of their accounts and at the end of the day, social media is just another form of communication, not significantly different from writing something on a message board, blog or in a text message.
When issues arise though, the response ought to be proportionate and made with an understanding of how social media is commonly used and what can be done to solve problems short of investigating every report.
Social media is a good thing – it’ll only strengthen and expand as time passes.
We need to strengthen our understanding of it and in doing so, we’ll strengthen our position to respond.
For more information on how to report issues directly to social media sites, check out the following links -