Social Media Law Updated – Deterring the Troll

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Internet trolls will (from March 2014) face up to two years in jail under new laws proposed by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. The previous maximum term of 6 months will be quadrupled under the plan to tackle the “cowards” who post abusive comments online. Mr Grayling said the plan was a signal of his determination to “take a stand against a baying cyber-mob”.

A welcome solution to quickly deter the increasing problem of real Internet abusers but is this a quick fix for an ageing law on harassment or a stand to take social media abuse and its victims seriously. It will indeed deter and potentially reduce clearly extreme attacks on social media but will also almost definitely spell confusion between statements qualifying between abusive threats, harsh opinion and quite simply, a ‘disagreeable comment’. The change claims to enable officers and prosecution to have more time to investigate and build clear strong case however the difficulty of definition between how a disagreeable opinion and a truly extreme threat is the real hurdle. Even persistent abusers, as in the case of Peter Nunn and Stella Creasy, can quite simply claim they were stating their opinion.

‘The problem is that it’s not always possible to tell what is a threat and what is just an offensive opinion – or even a joke. If we think jokes are ‘OK’, then people who really are threatening and offensive will try to say that what they said was just a joke.’ Paul Burnal: Lecturer Media Law UEA

Claire Hardaker, an academic from Lancaster University who studies online aggression, said proving the intent of a threat on the internet was difficult for police.

“It’s like your mum sending you a text saying ‘I’m going to kill you’ because maybe you forgot to bring something that she asked you to bring, versus somebody on the internet saying ‘I’m going to kill you’,” she said.

“You have to know the intent of the two different people and to know the intent of the stranger on the internet you’ve got to be able to read their mind. Proving intent, proving that they really meant it, that they had the means to carry it out, it’s very difficult.”

The previous law served to prosecute those who subjected others to sexually offensive, verbally abusive or threatening material online in magistrates’ courts under the Malicious Communications Act, with a maximum prison sentence of six months. Under the updated act, it is an offence to send another person a letter or electronic communication that contains an indecent or grossly offensive message, a threat or information which is false and known or believed by the sender to be false.

As social media professionals, what responsibilities do we have to the audiences and communities we monitor? What can we advise to tackle, identify or even enforce vigilance where possible. The risk is not as we have identified, in the response, but in the identification of abusers and their intentions.

Should more responsibility lie with the social channels themselves; policing malicious behaviour through the action of suspending or banning offending profiles?

The updated law is indeed a positive deterrent for potential abusers and a welcome recognition of victims but when the intentions of those prosecuted are unclear and questionable it may cast a cloud of doubt for the guilty party or even worse if the innocent are convicted.

Read more about the what people are saying about Troll Laws online.

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