The use of social media to exert abuse
As with the emergence of any new platform of communication, the widespread and global use of social media is open to abuse. Whether you call it cyber bullying as it began to be known in the early 2000s or trolling as we call it in 2014, social media platforms can be misused by overly vitriolic, spiteful or just generally ignorant individuals to exert abuse.
In the worst of cases this abuse is be perpetrated knowingly and with the intent to cause anxiety and distress. However, in the majority of examples trolling stems from the less objectively malicious intent of amusing peers with bad taste or controversial humour at the expense of others.
It is this distinction that needs to be born in mind when we define that which is acceptable humour, albeit a bit below the belt, permitted in the name of free speech and that which should fall under the remit of the malicious communication and be prohibited.
The Malicious Communications Act
The Malicious Communications Act is a well-established piece of legislation brought in in the late 80s that makes it an offence to intentionally cause distress or anxiety through sending or delivering letters.
Initially intended to cover printed material, the scope of the act was extended to cover electronic communication in recent years. Under this act, people can find themselves subject to a prison sentence for communication via social media that falls under the remit of the offences in the act. You can read more about what is and isn’t covered by the legislation on the BBC Magazine Monitor Blog.
Under recent changes to the act, maximum sentences have been extended to six months for those who subject others to sexually offensive, verbally abusive or threatening material online.
In addition there is the discretion for further extended sentences to be given in the most serious of cases, which will be elevated to Crown Court rather than just going through the Magistrates Court as they have historically.
Is the legislation itself open to abuse?
Some people have criticised this as an overreaction and feel that the entire act needs reviewing as this new sentencing power is just an add on to an arguably out of date piece of legislation. Others have also raised concerns that there needs to be more education surrounding what is and isn’t acceptable to communicate online.
There is a fear naïve or ignorant social media users could find themselves slapped with a prison sentence as a result of not knowing where the boundaries of what it is acceptable to say lie. I would agree on this front – this is something that we should be educating children about in school as young people develop online personas at a younger and younger age and often their parents are less ofay with proper online conduct and etiquette than they are.
Arguably the most concerning aspect of this area of law is that whilst it is intended to protect people from abuse it is itself also open to abuse and misapplication. It is in the hands of the courts to define whether something was intended to cause “anxiety and distress”.
By its very nature political, religious or atheist dissent has the power to offend, yet this should not mean that it cannot be expressed. Where is the line between that which merely offends the holder of a contrary view and that which overtly causes anxiety and distress?
Your thoughts and comments are welcomed!