I write as the head of an English police force concerned about the increasing amount of time and effort being spent by my officers and staff dealing with harassment and abuse through social media.
I note a recent report which cited that the number of people prosecuted or cautioned for sending offensive and threatening messages over social media, phone or email has risen sharply.
There was a 40% increase in the number of people charged for “improper use of electronic messages” between 2010 and 2013 in England, from 506 to 708.
During the same period, the number of cautions issued for the same offence rose from 147 to 458.
However, this does not tell the full story, as was found in a recent study carried out in my own force.
Using the cyber keywords, 2,962 incidents were identified over a three month period during 2014.
This averages around 230 cyber related incidents per month.
Key findings showed that online harassment, threats, abuse and bullying accounted for 68% of all incidents with an online element.
This data suggests that the Internet is used as a platform to harass, make threats, abuse, bully someone and in some cases the dispute has escalated ‘offline’ and a crime has been committed, for example, criminal damage or violence.
As we move towards a more technological dependent society and daily activities such as shopping and reading the news is conducted ‘online’, the way in which we communicate with one another has now moved online, including online insults and harassment.
Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently wrote that Twitter was not the best place to have a row and has called for a ban on online trolls.
However, only 8% of online harassment, threats, abuse and bullying reported incidents were recorded as a crime – and that is the real issue we, as a police force, are facing.
The challenge for us is distinguishing when these online disputes/insults become a crime.
As we attempt to deal with unprecedented cuts in policing, more and more time is spent by my officers dealing with online rows and abuse where we have no real chance of any prosecution.
Regularly I am told by beat officers that they are visiting the homes of people whose child has been called names by another child on Twitter or Facebook. It is not a pleasant incident, but is this what the public would like my officers to spend their time doing?
Dick Costolo, chief executive of Twitter, has admitted that the company is not doing enough to tackle harassment and abuse, saying “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform.”
I welcome this acknowledgement and encourage him to start taking a tougher stance on online troublemakers.
I am happy to work to work with him and others to make our cyber world a safer place as it is not an issue we can tackle alone.
Put simply, if people can’t behave online then Dick Costolo and his colleagues should remove the privilege of Twitter and other social media channels and kick them off.