The proliferation of complaints arising from social media disputes poses difficult questions over how they should be dealt with, writes Oliver Sweeney.

This week Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing, told the BBC that complaints originating from social media now make up ‘at least half’ of calls passed on to frontline police officers. These typically comprise bullying, harassment, abuse and threats of assault posted via social media.

He talked further about the education process underway to help officers decide which cases require further investigation since clearly the police ‘couldn’t possibly deal with every bit of nonsense and disagreement that occurs in social media’.

He was highlighting, of course, not only the changing nature of crime in our modern day but also the limited resources the police have to act. Examples of online crimes where the police typically investigate include genuine threats of violence, or where the conduct is evidence of domestic abuse.

However the fact is – as Mr Marshall acknowledged – not all online insults constitute a crime. If it is purely a ‘civil matter’ the police will not get involved.

We’ve all read about many high-profile examples of celebrities subjected to terrible online abuse at the hands of cyber trolls - journalist Caroline Criado-Perez after her campaign for a woman to appear on a Bank of England note, Beth Tweddle, the gymnast, over her looks and David Bowie for daring to express his views on Scottish devolution. However, online insults and abuse are a growing problem for ordinary members of the public too.

What differentiates harassment on social media from harassment before the internet age is:

  1. what is ‘said’ might be online forever (subject to the new ‘right to be forgotten’);
  2. comments can ostensibly be made anonymously, which emboldens people to write what they might not otherwise say;
  3. comments can easily be forwarded, leading to the formation of mobs and unpredictable Twitterstorms of abuse; and
  4. anyone, has the power to publish defamatory or private information about ordinary members of the public, as well as high-profile individuals.

As someone who deals frequently with online harassment cases, it was not surprising to me to learn that the police receive so many calls, and that they can be reluctant to take action. The question is, if the police cannot deal with the matter, how will members of the public know their civil rights in relation to material posted online?

There is often a perception that victims of online abuse are powerless, because the police, Twitter and Facebook do not do enough to protect users. There can also be a perception that the law has struggled to keep pace with changes in the social media space. However, lawyers do have tools to take action on civil matters which the police won’t address.

Remedies include, for example:  

  • The new Regulations under the Defamation Act 2013 which set out a process whereby a formal notice can be served on a website which is hosting defamatory comment. The notice will ask for the identity of the poster to be revealed. If the poster fails to respond, then the post must be taken down (if the website wants to be able to rely on the statutory defence).
  • Where a user is anonymous, it is also possible to obtain an Order from the civil courts against a website to order them to reveal the identity of the user, so that action can be taken against them.
  • The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it a criminal and a civil offence to pursue a course of conduct which causes alarm and distress, including the publication of words where there have been at least two communications. Convicted offenders can be imprisoned and fined but the victim can also bring a civil claim for damages and an injunction against the abuser preventing them from continuing the harassment.
  • If social media is used to communicate a false statement which causes serious harm to someone’s reputation, action can be taken in libel. Ordinary members of the public often forget that defamation and privacy rules apply to them too. It is possible to seek an injunction to restrain publication of the defamatory comments, and damages.
  • Likewise, if social media is used to publish private information about an individual it could give rise to a potential privacy claim. Again it is possible to seek an injunction to restrain publication, and damages.  
  • A recent European court ruling gives individuals the power to exercise the ‘right to be forgotten’, where they discover that information which is ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ is being continually published by a search engine such as Google.
  • Lastly, a lawyer may be able to persuade the social media sites to take action under their own policies against users who have breached their rules.

Not all of the above remedies will be suitable in every case of course and the costs of each course of action can vary. Lawyers like myself are increasingly being called upon to provide cost-effective remedies for their clients, considering each individual case. 

So it is right that the police should up their training in dealing with online abuse but this is not enough. The public also needs to have a better understanding of where the line is between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ online behaviour and who else they can turn to when there is a problem.  

Oliver Sweeney is a lawyer specialising in reputation management and part of the Public Eye, Private Lives practice at Kingsley Napley LLP