Police chiefs are calling on users of online social networking sites to be the “eyes and ears” of officers to help combat the menace of ‘trolls’ who bully or abuse via the web.
Police forces across the UK are investing more funds into making sure they are plugged into sites like Twitter and Facebook but their nature means they are having to rely on users to self-regulate or to alert the authorities to criminal behaviour.
Hyde said: “There is no Facebook squad or Twitter squad. We are not actively going out to catch people who have made inappropriate comments. We’re not there to hunt people down.”
He said he believed in most cases online communities work best if they self-regulated without officers needing to get involved. “But where allegations are made we can and do investigate,” he added.
There have been a string of recent cases involving abuse via Twitter, most notably that of student Liam Stacey, who was jailed for 56 days for posting racist tweets about the Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba following his collapse during a match.
Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie, ACPO’s lead on social media engagement, said the police were focusing on how best to use and patrol social network sites.
Scobbie said at the “high end” detectives pro-actively policed the web when they were, for example, investigating sexual grooming. But it was important social network users took it upon themselves to take action against abusers. “If you come across somebody behaving irresponsibly the onus is on you to do something about that if you care about that space. In my experience of Twitter and Facebook there are a lot of very responsible people who will be the eyes and ears and report stuff.”
Scobbie said more needed to be done to educate younger people, who will grow up as “internet natives”, to know how to protect themselves and each other on the net.
Acpo does not believe further legislation is needed to tackle cyber-bullying and trolling. Two of the main acts used are the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003. Stacey was convicted under the Public Order Act 1986 – which could be used whether the comments were made online or on the street.
One interesting Twitter development is the work of users who take it upon themselves to patrol the site for examples of abusive messages and try to shame perpetrators by re-tweeting them.
Among them is @homophobes, which re-tweets examples of homophobic abuse to more than 8,000 followers. The abuser is likely to receive hundreds of messages challenging his or her comments.
In an e-mail exchange, the @homophobes account holder said: “I’ve discovered that many people don’t realise how public the web is. After I re-tweet people, they get defensive when people tweet to them. Many times, they’re surprised that people they don’t know are actually seeing their content. I’d estimate that roughly every one in five homophobes I re-tweet deletes their tweet.”
@homophobes said in most cases police did not need to monitor social networks. “Many of the concerns with bullying and harassment can be fixed by the social networks themselves. Social networks need to give people all the tools they need to eliminate harassment (blocking, reporting, privacy filters, etc), and most importantly, they need to craft community behaviour to create negative repercussions for unwanted behaviour.”
Another similar user is @alittleracist, who has written a client – an application – that searches for key words in the phrase “I’m not a racist but …” The account holder, who did not want to be named, looks at the posts highlighted by the client and re-tweets those he feel ought to be highlighted. He said: “I think police should probably stay out of social networks on the whole; it would be a full-time job to police it.”
[No bullying image via karen roach / Shutterstock]