New Crown Prosecution Service guidance has set out the range of offences for which social media users could face prosecution.
The guidance, published (10 October), will be used to inform decisions on whether criminal charges should be pursued.
Released during Hate Crime Awareness Week, it has also been updated in order to help prosecutors identify and effectively prosecute hate crime on social media.
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 new social media guidelines for prosecutors make clear that those 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 social media guidance, which is informed by a public consultation and signed off by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Alison Saunders, also includes new sections on Violence against Women and Girls (VaWG), Hate Crime and vulnerable victims.
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 new guidance also alerts prosecutors to cyber-enabled VaWG and hate crime offences. These can include ‘baiting’, the practice of humiliating a person online by labelling them as sexually promiscuous or posting ‘photoshopped’ images of people on social media platforms.
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.
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.”