Social Media

Scale of online abuse revealed

The BBC has revealed that more than 1,700 cases involving abusive messages sent online or via text message reached Britain’s courts in 2012.  The Freedom of Information request also revealed that nearly 600 charges were brought between January and May this year.

However, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has failed to disclose how many of the cases brought resulted in a successful prosecution.

Under the Communications Act 2003, a person is guilty of an offence if they send “a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” by means of an electronic communications network.

The revelations were made following the widely publicised abuse campaign against feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez  and MP Stella Creasy.  Both ladies have received horrific rape and death threats via Twitter.  Twitter has responded to say that it will make the reporting of abuse easier, but no timescale has been offered by which the changes will be made.
Increasing pressure is being put on Twitter and other social media platforms to tackle the growing problem of ‘trolls’ and online abuse, harassment and victimisation.  However, guidance issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) suggests that only the most serious of offences will be pursued by the CPS.

Like many other social media platforms, Twitter has its own rules which “explicitly bar direct, specific threats of violence against others”.  However, without being able to review every tweet, there is a very real risk that even if a reporting button is introduced, it will be unable to cope with the flood of alerts.  It is also unclear what action, if any, can and should be taken against rule-breakers.

In the workplace

Employers should take note of these worrying statistics and take action themselves against any online abuse by or against their employees.  Sensible and clear policies and abuse reporting procedures can be effective in minimising the risk of harm (and potential liability) at the earliest opportinity.

Working with employees and creating an environment which is supportive and encourages reporting can limit the extent of abuse in many circumstances.  However, employers must be dilligent and fair when considering any allegations of abuse, harassment or victimisation.  Internal policies should always be followed and fair and reasonable investigations carried out.

There is a responsibility on all social media users to identify and report abuse.  But with limited resources available to the Police and CPS, action will need to be taken at grassroots level to prevent any more harm from trolls and abusers of social media.

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