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Someone is sending me threatening / abusive / offensive messages via a social networking site. Is this a criminal offence?


Answer

If a person sends threatening/abusive/offensive messages to another person via Facebook, Twitter, or any other social networking site, they could be committing an offence. The most relevant offences are 'harassment' and 'malicious communications'. The offence of 'stalking' may also be relevant if a person is being targeted persistently by someone across various social media accounts, along with any other repeated, obsessive and intrusive behaviour, that causes the person alarm and distress. See Q151 and the links in Related Information for further details.

For harassment to be committed, there must be a 'course of conduct' (i.e. two or more related occurrences). The messages do not necessarily have to be violent in nature, but must be oppressive and need to have caused some alarm or distress. See Q497 for further information regarding this offence.

If there has only been a single communication, which would be insufficient for the offence of harassment (above), there could be an offence relating to malicious communications. For such an offence to be committed, a message must be sent to another person (or sent via a public communications network) that is indecent, grossly offensive, obscene or threatening/menacing.

You can report any possible offences to your local police force, who will advise whether they can progress the matter based on the full facts and your individual situation. In order to assist the police with their investigation you must not respond to the message as it may encourage the sender and make the situation worse. Also you could take a screen shot of the message so if it gets deleted later there will still be a record of what was said.

However, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the messages, you may wish to initially make a report to Facebook/Twitter etc., as they have processes in place for such situations, and may be able to simply remove the content and/or close down the person's account.

Please see the links in Related Information for Facebook and Twitter's Community Guidelines in relation to dealing with harassment.

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Related questions


Answer

Zoom is a video conferencing app. Zoom Bombing is a cyber attack on your video call where an individual or a group of people enter it without the permission of the host. These individuals then display offensive or explicit images in order to cause distress to the recipients.

During the coronavirus emergency period, video conferencing is helping many people to work remotely and allowing us to stay in touch with our families and friends. Unfortunately as worldwide use of video conferencing increases, so has the reporting of cyber attacks .

The links in Related Information provide details of how to secure your Zoom meeting and prevent unwanted joining.

If you have experienced zoom bombing, this can reported to Zoom and depending on the nature of the content, your Local Police Force.


Answer

People are being increasingly targeted via social networking sites. Anybody who can get access to your personal information can do this; whether it is a former partner/friend or someone you have never met before. This is why it is extremely important to protect yourself when using sites such as Facebook /Twitter.
You should always be cautious about including any of the following information:

  • Name;
  • Address;
  • Telephone numbers / email addresses;
  • Education / employment information;
  • Photographs which may show your home and any valuables you may own;
  • Date of birth;
  • Status updates / comments which may state when you are not at home, when you are going on holiday, what expensive items you have recently bought etc.

Be wary of including 'friends of friends' in your privacy settings, as this effectively allows anybody, to view your information. The anonymity of the internet makes it easy for people to lie about their identity;so be wary of accepting strangers who send you a friend request. They could be pretending to be someone else (e.g. lying about their gender/age) in order to persuade another person to agree to meet up with them, when in actual fact they have criminal intentions.

Also if you add someone who you do not know, they may begin to ask you questions over time and aim conversations to particular subjects, in order to find out more information about you. If they already have your email address they could log in to that account using the information you have given them and answer your security questions/reset your passwords. Once they have done this and have access to your personal emails, they could be gaining access to your bank details, online shopping accounts, paypal etc. and use these to take money from your accounts or buy goods in your name.

'Internet matters' and 'Cyberstreet Wise' are websites that offer advice on using social networking securely and what safeguarding measures to take. You will find links to these, and other helpful websites, in the related information section.


Answer

Depending on the exact nature of the information and how they have posted it (Have they sent the information to someone else? Have they posted it via their own account? Who has access to the information?), an offence may have been committed.

For harassment to be committed, there must be a 'course of conduct' (i.e. two or more related occurrences). The information does not necessarily have to be violent in nature, but must be oppressive and need to have caused some alarm or distress. See Q497 for further information regarding this offence.

If the information is indecent, grossly offensive, obscene or threatening/menacing, then an offence relating to 'malicious communications' may have been committed. This offence does not require more than one incident. You can report any of these offences to your local policing team and they will then investigate and take appropriate action.

If the information posted does not fall under either of the above offences, then you may wish to consider whether the person has committed 'libel' (defamation of character - publishing a false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation). If this is the case, you would need to take action through the civil courts as this would be a civil matter and the police do not have any jurisdiction to assist with this. You should seek legal advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau and/or a solicitor before taking any action regarding this. Please see related information to find your local bureau.

In the first instance, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the information, you may wish to initially make a report to Facebook/Twitter (before contacting the police/Citizens Advice/a solicitor), as these sites have processes in place for such situations, and may be able to simply remove the content and/or close down the person's account.


Answer

Cyberbullying is any form of bullying that takes place online. This could be blackmail/threats, abusive comments, spreading rumours, sharing embarrassing pictures or creating fake profiles on social networking sites.

Though there is no specific offence of cyberbullying, you could be found guilty under an existing offence. For example sending someone threatening, abusive messages can lead to an offence of harassment (Q770) and posting sexual photographs of someone without their consent could be a criminal offence under the revenge porn law. (Q834).

Victims of Cyberbullying may be unaware as to what help is available to them. If the bullying is taking place on a social networking site (Facebook, Twitter etc.) you should contact them directly as they have policies in place to remove inappropriate material and if necessary, the bully's account, see link in related information.

If you are a child/young person then contact Childline for more help and guidance, see link in related information.

The behaviour could potentially amount to a criminal offence, we would suggest that you contact your local policing team via the non-emergency 101 number and report the matter.

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