People are warned to take care about what they both post and respond to on social networking sites following the publication of figures on alleged crimes involving Facebook and Twitter.
According to statistics released by the police under the Freedom of Information Act, the number has increased by nearly eight times in four years, with 653 people charged in 2012 out of 4,908 offences reported to 29 forces in England, Scotland and Wales. In 2008, when the level of social network activity was much lower, there were 556 reports of alleged crimes with 46 people charged.
A string of controversial court cases led to interim guidelines being issued last week aimed at reducing the number of charges in England and Wales. The conviction of Paul Chambers in 2010 for joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire, was widely condemned and eventually quashed … the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) having admitted making the wrong "judgment call" on the case.
ACPO (The Association of Chief Police Officers) has said that it is important for police to prioritise social networking crimes which result in genuine harm. ACPO spokesman Chief Constable Andy Trotter said: "We need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgment. But equally, there are many offences involving social media such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm. It is that higher end of offending which forces need to concentrate on."
Nearly two-thirds of police forces asked to provide the number of crime reports in which either Facebook or Twitter was a key factor, responded. Offences included not only those committed on the websites themselves such as the posting of abusive messages, but also violent attacks which had been provoked by online postings. There was also a high number of sexual offences including grooming, as well as alleged stalking, racially aggravated conduct and fraud. Greater Manchester Police charged the highest number of people, at 115. Lancashire Police say they received reports of six threats of murder.
Some of the offences would have been committed regardless of the existence of social media, Mr Trotter said. "We have to respect free speech and cannot have police forces responding simply because of public outcry." He added "In many ways, online communities can be self-regulating and good at weeding out unacceptable behaviour. We need to find a way of distinguishing between that type of behaviour and that which requires police intervention."
Mr Trotter welcomed the recent guidance from the CPS, saying it set a "high threshold" for that intervention and represented a first step towards a better co-ordinated approach.