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Social Media has fast become an established method of communication that we all use on an almost daily basis. Sites such as Twitter, Facebook and tumblr allow us to share our thoughts not only with friends and family, but also with a much wider (and potentially global) audience.
In the wrong hands, the features which make social media sites so attractive as a form of communication and as a way of engaging in lively debate can also become powerful tools for harassment and bullying.
Until relatively recently, both the criminal law and Police forces have struggled to keep pace with the many varied ways we now choose to communicate with one another. However those who seek to use social media to attack private individuals, and those in the public eye, are increasingly finding themselves under investigation by law enforcement agencies both here in the UK and abroad.
If this week’s announcement by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that the maximum prison sentences for sending threatening online communications are to be increased from 6 months to 2 years is anything to go by, then the government is now starting to take a very strict approach. Indeed in Mr Grayling’s own words,
“These internet trolls are cowards who are poisoning our national life. No-one would permit such venom in person, so there should be no place for it on social media. That is why we are determined to quadruple the current six-month sentence."
But as anyone who has followed the civil and criminal cases involving comments posted on social media will know, these cases often encompass a broader range of legal issues, including defamation law, privacy and even anti-terror legislation.
Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of missing Madeleine McCann, have been the recipients of some of the most sustained online harassment and abuse. A concerted campaign by a small number of social media users saw the rise of conspiracy theories relating to Madeleine’s disappearance as well as numerous threats directed towards the couple themselves.
The messages posted by trolls on Twitter, Facebook and forums about the McCanns are now the subject of investigation, after Sky News and other media organisations passed on dossiers filled with potentially abusive messages to the Police. In the words of one campaigner, speaking to Sky News,
"We're very worried that it's only going to take somebody to act out of some of these discussions, some of the threats that have been made, and we couldn't live with ourselves if that happened and we had done nothing."
However, the case of the McCanns and their trolls has also highlighted that in many cases, those who post negative comments online are themselves vulnerable.
Brenda Leyland, one such twitter user who had posted thousands of messages relating to the McCanns, found herself unmasked and door-stepped by a Sky News TV crew, led by reporter Martin Brunt. Days after being confronted over her tweets, Ms. Leyland was found dead in a hotel room near to her home, after apparently taking her own life.
TV presenter and model Chloe Madeley, received threats on Twitter after defending her mother, Judy Finnigan, who had caused controversy with comments she made on the ITV programme Loose Women, describing a rape committed by footballer Ched Evans as "non-violent". Chloe’s father Richard Madeley said that those who sent “sick rape threats” to his daughter are in “deep trouble” and that “prosecution awaits”.
MP Stella Creasy received numerous rape threats and other sexist messages via her twitter in July 2013 after she supported a successful campaign to put the image of Jane Austen on the new £10 note. One of those behind the abusive messages, 33-year-old twitter user Peter Nunn, was arrested, prosecuted and last month began an 18 week prison sentence for sending indecent, obscene or menacing messages.
Just this week, another case, which involved a grossly offensive anti-Semitic message being sent to Liverpool MP Luciana Berger ended with a 21-year-old man being sentenced to 4 weeks in jail. Garron Helm, a member of neo-Nazi group National Action, sent a series of tweets to Ms Berger in August this year, in a move described by the trial judge as “calculated” and “extremely abusive and upsetting.”
Here at Canter Levin & Berg Solicitors, we asked Solicitor Martin Malone, himself no stranger to social media, for his thoughts about some of the legal issues involved and the difficulties faced by the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and solicitors when it comes to dealing with cases involving online harassment.
“It is clear that only the most extreme cases of online harassment will expose people to a risk of prosecution. The most recent guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service aimed at social media communications was issued following the "blowing up Robin Hood Airport" tweet so the concern at the time was directed more towards terrorism than to harassment and threats against individuals.
Rather like law and religion, social media and law is a problematic mix. It will be very hard to come up with legislation that adequately covers all potential scenarios.
What is offensive to one person may be seen as harmless by another, and those analysing what might be said in a tweet or Facebook post may not appreciate the context of in which the message was sent, or the intent of the sender. I suspect that with an election pending politicians will be keen to avoid the issue.”