If you are planning to make one New Year’s resolution, then maybe what you should be focusing your attention on this year is making sure that you choose your words very carefully on social media platforms from now on.
So why should you be cautious – is there a problem? Well, yes there is. The number of alleged crimes involving social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is on the rise, and the authorities are getting increasingly concerned and litigious. That’s because the number of alleged crimes involving these platforms has increased nearly four-fold over the last four years. In fact there were 4,908 offences reported to 29 Police forces in England, Scotland and Wales in 2012, and 653 people were charged. Understandably police forces are concerned about this escalating problem and have urged users to take greater care before posting comments in future.
Guidelines have been introduced over the last couple of weeks to clarify the legal position of posts on social media platforms, with the aim of reducing the number of charges in England and Scotland, following several high profile and controversial prosecutions, the most notorious of which was the conviction of Paul Chambers in 2010 for a throwaway remark on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire. Following widespread condemnation, the conviction was finally quashed.
The latest statistics were released by the police under the Freedom of Information Act, and demonstrate the scale of the problem.
In 2008 there were 556 reports of alleged crimes on social media sites from which 46 people were charged. Admittedly social media activity at that point was considerably lower. In 2012 however the figure had risen to 4,908 allegations from which 653 charges followed.
So do these new guidelines mean that the number of charges will continue to rise inexorably? Well, actually no it doesn’t. The police are urging people to take more care when posting, but will not be targeting low level postings that merely cause offence. Speaking to the BBC, Chief Constable Andy Trotter of the Association of Chief Police Officers said it was important that police prioritised those social networking crimes which caused genuine harm, stating:
“We need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgment.
“But equally, there are many offences involving social media, such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm. It is that higher end of offending which forces need to concentrate on.”
Police forces were asked to provide the number of crime reports in which either Facebook or Twitter was a key factor, or nearly two-thirds responded.
Offences included the online posting of abusive messages, but also violent attacks committed for real but provoked by these kinds of online postings. There were also numerous sexual offences including grooming, complaints of stalking, allegations of racially aggravated conduct and reports of fraud. However, Mr Trotter stressed that some of the offences would have been committed anyway, regardless of the existence of social media:
“We have to respect free speech and cannot have police forces responding simply because of public outcry. In many ways, online communities can be self-regulating and good at weeding out unacceptable behaviour. We need to find a way of distinguishing between that type of behaviour and that which requires police intervention.”