Yesterday, the BBC stated that complaints originating from social media make up "at least half" of calls passed on to front-line police officers. 

Whilst the Police are training officers to deal with online offences, this will of course not deal with the issue that the Police have limited resources with which to respond to every reported incident on social media. The Police cannot deal with “every bit of nonsense and disagreement that occurs in social media".

Mr Marshall, head of the College of Policing, said the police and public were still trying to understand when online insults became a crime.

This tallies with my experience last week at Westminster, where I was discussing how legislators might respond to the problems of online harassment and abuse. The discussion panel included Caroline Criado-Perez, who had been subjected to terrible online abuse after her campaign for a woman to appear on a Bank of England note. The forum heard how difficult it can be to get the Police to engage, and engage effectively, in taking action against campaigns of abuse and harassment.

The Police have to consider whether the matter reported to them is sufficiently serious that they want to pursue it as a crime. If it is a “civil matter” they will not get involved. Examples of crimes which the Police would investigate include genuine threats of violence, or where the conduct is evidence of domestic abuse. The Police also have to bear in mind if they have the ability to identify the criminal.

Online abuse is a problem that will not go away. Social media is here to stay. 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. not just the traditional media, but anyone, has the power to publish defamatory or private information about ordinary members of the public, as well as high profile individuals.

Whilst our legislators are trying to get to grips in a meaningful way with the above issues, members of the public are left not knowing where to turn. Comments which the Police do not consider to be “crimes” may still be very hurtful to the victim.

The answer for now is that they should be assisted by either the social media sites themselves, or by lawyers.

Lawyers do have the tools to take action on “civil matters” which the Police won’t address (including tools to identify culprits, and the new “take down” process under the Defamation Act 2013), and a specialist lawyer should know how to get the right result cost-effectively. This includes removal of comments plus, if appropriate, tracing and suing the individuals responsible. We have previously written on the various causes of action a victim might have.

It is not enough simply to train the Police. Online abuse is potentially a problem for any one of us, and so the public need to have a better understanding of where the line is between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” online behaviour, and who they can turn to when there is a problem.