June 5th 2015
New figures reveal that the numbers of alleged crimes being investigated by the police involving social media are substantially increasing.
The new report – released this morning by the Press Association – indicates that last year, 38 out of the UK’s 45 police forces reported a rise in the number of crime reports where Facebook was involved. 24 forces said they also received more crime reports which mentioned Twitter than in the previous year. The figures were obtained by the PA under a Freedom of Information request.
The thousands of complaints reported included allegations of sexual offences, threats to kill and harassment. The National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) said police and internet providers had a "responsibility" to protect people online, while Facebook insisted it did not tolerate abusive behaviour and urged users to report illegal activity.
London’s Metropolitan Police – Britain’s largest force – received 1,207 crime reports which mentioned Facebook in 2014, up from 935 in 2013 and 997 in 2012. The force also revealed a sharp rise in crime reports including Twitter, from 105 in 2013 to 138 in 2014.
Greater Manchester Police said that Facebook appeared in 959 crime reports last year, up from 512 in 2013 and 451 in 2012. Last year's complaints included 371 allegations of harassment, 38 threats to kill and eight rape allegations involving girls under the age of 16.
Staffordshire Police reported a 40% rise in crime reports which mentioned Facebook after receiving 1,269 in 2014, including 326 complaints of harassment, 13 rape allegations involving girls under 16 and 38 threats to kill in 2014. Twitter appeared in 56 crime reports in 2014, up from 48 in 2013 and 25 in 2012, it was revealed. The force’s Detective Superintendent Scott Jones said: "Without trawling each crime it would be difficult to establish what context Facebook or Twitter played in each crime. However, it would be fair to say that like many other forces across the country we have seen an increase in offences online but the majority still go unreported."
The Police Service of Northern Ireland and South Wales Police are amongst others who reported a sharp increase. Police Scotland did not provide figures, putting this down to the cost of retrieving the information exceeding the limit set out under Freedom of Information laws.
Superintendent Paul Giannasi of the NPCC's Hate Crime Working Group, said: "We are working with industry partners and others to try to tackle the level of abuse, harassment and other offensive content on social media, but we have to balance the right to free speech with the need to protect individuals from targeted abuse.” He continued: "There have been a number of successful prosecutions against people posting offensive and abusive messages, including under new legislation making revenge pornography illegal. In some cases this has led to the offender being imprisoned. There is a responsibility on police and internet providers to protect people online. Anyone who feels that they are being harassed on social media should report it to the police via the dedicated True Vision website so that we can investigate it fully."
A Facebook spokesman said the company responds to appropriate requests from police to provide information about illegal activity to help ensure the site remains a safe place. The site said it does not tolerate abusive behaviour and operates a ‘real name’ policy so that people are accountable for their actions. It added that it is "highly self-regulating" and the website encourages its 1.3 billion users worldwide to report content they find upsetting or which breaks the site's community standards.
Social media not necessarily a tool to commit an offence
It is important to point out that many police forces pointed out that even though Facebook or Twitter appeared in a crime report, social media may not have been used as a tool to commit an offence. Kent Police, which had the highest number of crime reports to mention Facebook last year, reported a sharp fall from 3,683 in 2013 to 1,608 in 2014. The force said the use of the words Twitter or Facebook in a crime report "does not necessarily mean that the crime has anything whatsoever to do with social media" and it estimated that 3% of total offences referred to online crime.