Police investigate five crimes every day in Northern Ireland involving the use of Facebook or Twitter, it can be revealed.
Threats, sectarian abuse and offensive comments are among dozens of incidents reported to the PSNI each week, underlining the growing menace posed by cyber bullies.
It comes amid growing concern over the use of social media.
Earlier this week, a 17-year-old was arrested after sending vile abuse to Olympic star Tom Daley.
Dozens of other high-profile celebrities have also been targeted in recent months, including Celtic boss Neil Lennon, footballer Stan Collymore and TV presenter Eamonn Holmes.
The PSNI confirmed it had received 1,818 complaints in the 12 months to April this year — an average of five every day — with most relating to Facebook.
The figures were released after a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph.
Social media has grown in popularity in recent years, with thousands of people now connected to sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
However, a growing number of users have fallen victim to abusive posts, known as ‘trolling’.
On Tuesday, Reece Messer was detained by police in England, hours after targeting Tom Daley on Twitter.
In a message, Messer told the diver, whose father died of a brain tumour last year: “You let your dad down, I hope you know that.” It came after Daley missed out on a medal at the Games.
There have also been a series of high-profile incidents in Northern Ireland.
Last summer, a republican Facebook page was shut down after calling for people to post pictures of PSNI officers and details of security operations.
The Police Federation said publishing pictures was an attempt to target police officers for murder.
Police were also called in to investigate offensive comments on Facebook about two children in West Belfast who had taken their own lives.
The remarks were described by detectives as “grossly offensive”.
Rosemary Craig, a lecturer in law at the University of Ulster, said inappropriate posts on internet sites could have major implications.
“Posting online in whatever fashion can have severe financial and possibly criminal consequences,” she said.
“Comments containing menacing threats can amount to a criminal act.”
The Association of Chief Police Officers’ spokesman on social media, Stuart Hyde, said forces were dealing with more and more complaints connected to Facebook and Twitter: “Social media is increasingly part of police business and the law covers situations where you have comment that goes way beyond legitimate opinion.
“People have the right to freedom of speech but it has to be within the law.”
The PSNI said it would investigate any incident where a crime may have taken place.
- Anyone who sends an offensive message via social media can face six months in prison or a £5,000 fine.
- This comes under the Malicious Communications Act, which covers letters, telecoms and any form of electronic communication.
Sinister messages on the internet... cases that hit the headlines
In February, the former Coleraine and Glentoran footballer became the first Irish League player to be suspended for comments made on Twitter. It related to Tweets posted by Knight following Coleraine’s League Cup semi-final win over Cliftonville last December. In May, he caused more |outrage after posting comments about homosexuality.
Lennox the dog
The PSNI was asked to investigate after staff at Belfast City Council were bombarded by offensive messages from people claiming to support Lennox. A wave of threats was issued after the dog was put down last month. The council described the messages, many of which were on Facebook and Twitter, as “intimidating and significant in number”.
A man was jailed for 14 months after |posting a picture of Neil Lennon covered in bullet wounds on Facebook. David Craig, |originally from Paisley, posted abuse about the Celtic boss after an Old Firm game last year. One photo of Lennon had the words “dead man walking” on the front of his body. A judge said Craig’s actions were “vile and hateful”.
Footballer James McClean closed his Twitter account after receiving sectarian abuse following his call-up to the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2012 squad. After posting on Twitter about his call-up, McClean received messages full of vile sectarian abuse and death threats. One Twitter user posted: “F*** up your dirty fenian b****** il make sure you get shot when you set foot back into gods country #FTP.”
Paul Chambers from Northern Ireland was convicted of sending a menacing tweet threatening to blow up an airport in England, but it was quashed on appeal. Mr Chambers was living in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, when he tweeted that he would blow up nearby Robin Hood Airport because it closed after heavy snow. In May 2010 he was found guilty of sending a “menacing electronic communication”, but his conviction was quashed at a High Court hearing in London.
Stop and think before sending messages
By Rosemary Craig
If ever a ‘message’ has gone out loud and clear it’s now. Facebook, Twitter, emails, texts — be careful what you write. Stop and think before you send. You cannot retrieve it.
An ‘innocent’ message or photograph could come back to haunt you in years to come.
Even if one deletes a message it can be retrieved.
Many young people will regret posting photographs which might have seemed funny at the time.
A future employer may spot what someone got up to.
How embarrassing would it be if someone is in a position of trust in years to come and a photograph or Tweet or derogatory comment made years ago found?
A recent employment case in Northern Ireland resulted in an employee being fairly dismissed for misconduct for posting vulgar comments about a colleague.
Even if the comments are made outside of work they can be used to fairly dismiss.
The decision makes clear employees will struggle to argue they have a reasonable expectation of privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Once anyone posts something publicly on social media, it ceases to be private.
Posting online can have severe consequences.
Damages can be staggering. There is no legal aid available.
Comments containing menacing threats can amount to a criminal act with dire consequences.
Paul Chambers, who was found guilty of threatening to blow up Robin Hood airport in Doncaster in a joke on Twitter, has had his conviction quashed.
Again here was a message sent in the spur of the moment.
Chambers meant the message as a silly joke. The CPS thought otherwise.
Rosemary Craig is a lecturer in law at the University of Ulster