The Crown Prosecution Service has laid out guidance for crimes related to abuse on social media.
Social networks including Twitter have repeatedly vowed to clamp down on sexist, homophobic and racist hate speech, but critics say that trolls appear to operate with impunity.
After a string of cases related to social media, the CPS has this week set out guidance for the range of offences for which users could face prosecution.
The guidelines make clear that people who encourage others to participate in online harassment campaigns – known as ‘virtual mobbing’ – can face charges of encouraging an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007.
Examples of potentially criminal behaviour include making available personal information, for example a home address or bank details – a practice known as ‘doxxing’ – or creating a derogatory hashtag to encourage harassment of victims.
The CPS notes that information that is “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false” will not always face prosecutions, but a discriminatory motive makes prosecution more likely.
The new guidance also alerts prosecutors to cyber-enabled hate crime offences and Violence against Women and Girls (VaWG).
It notes the prominence of slurs of offensive discriminatory references. It also warns of ‘baiting’, the practice of humiliating a person online by labelling them as sexually promiscuous or posting ‘photoshopped’ images of people on social media platforms.
In a section on hate crimes on social media, the guidance states: “Prosecutors must also have regard to whether the offence was motivated by any form of discrimination against the victim’s ethnic or national origin, gender, disability, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation or gender identity; or the suspect demonstrated hostility towards the victim based on any of those characteristics.
“The presence of any such motivation or hostility will mean that it is more likely that prosecution is required.”
It continues: “When assessing communications that appear to be motivated by such discrimination or demonstrate such hostility, prosecutors should be alert to any additional reference or context to the communication in question.
“Such references or context may sometimes elevate a communication that would otherwise not meet the high threshold to one that, in all the circumstances, can be considered grossly offensive.
“For instance, a reference within the communication to a recent tragic event, involving many deaths of persons who share any of the protected characteristics.”
The DPP said: “Social media can be used to educate, entertain and enlighten but there are also people who use it to bully, intimidate and harass.
“Ignorance is not a defence and perceived anonymity is not an escape. Those who commit these acts, or encourage others to do the same, can and will be prosecuted.”
The guidance provides information for prosecutors considering cases of ‘sexting’ that involve images taken of under-18-year-olds.
It advises that it would not usually be in the public interest to prosecute the consensual sharing of an image between two children of a similar age in a relationship. A prosecution may be appropriate in other scenarios, however, such as those involving exploitation, grooming or bullying.
Today also sees the launch of CPS Public Policy Statements on Hate Crime, which will now be put to a public consultation.
These will focus on crimes against disabled people, racial and religious and homophobic and transphobic hate crime.
The DPP added: “This month marks the 30th anniversary of the CPS and this latest guidance shows how much the nature of our prosecutions has changed in that time.
“We are constantly working to ensure that our guidance stays relevant to modern crime and consultations are a crucial part of that process.
“We welcome the comments and opinions of communities and those affected by hate crimes to help us inform the way we deal with such cases in the future.
“Our latest Hate Crime Report showed that in 2015/16 more hate crime prosecutions were completed than ever before. More than four in five prosecuted hate crimes result in a conviction; with over 73 per cent guilty pleas, which is good news for victims.
“We have undertaken considerable steps to improve our prosecution of hate crime and we are committed to sustaining these efforts.”