The topic of online trolls and bullies is hot news at the moment, but it’s also been around for some time. The tragic death of Hannah Smith has highlighted this issue and brought to the attention of parents and other people that while online media has its benefits, it hides a dark flaw and allows people to abuse and bully. Unfortunately many people clearly feel that nothing can or will be done to prevent such overt abuse.
There are current laws in place which would cover trolling and bullying.
The Protection of Harassment Act 1997
This has always been an ambiguous Act and what is colloquially known as ‘harassment’ has often been hard to prove and defend at the same time. Harassment and stalking are covered under this Act, and both are chargeable offences. Sentencing guidelines are equally as ambiguous.
Currently, the Act states that there have to be two courses of conduct of unwanted contact or that which causes distress. The two courses of conduct could be in the way of telephone calls, text messages, emails, face-to-face contact or letters. Social media contact could be incorporated into this, and legislation should be tougher on these offences.
In terms of online trolls and bullies, there is solid evidence if threats and bullying messages are printed. As they say, nothing written on the Internet is in pencil. Yet this Act is rarely used in a criminal court of law. Once two courses of similar conduct have been carried out, it’s usually the case that a local friendly police officer will carry out an investigation and pay a visit to the offender and inform them their behaviour has been reported and a warning issued under the Act. If a further course of conduct is carried out, the offender could be charged with an offence under the Act. A period of six months in prison is the current sentence guideline; however, it is rare this is proven or indeed a case coming to a Magistrate’s court.
The Act itself has an anomaly in its name: ‘of’ instead of ‘from’? It’s a bizarre title, and tougher legislation is needed, as is the educating of parents who are now increasingly concerned about children and online bullies. This Act currently exists and it is surprising that lawmakers have not made this law known during the media frenzy surrounding this topic.
The Malicious Communications Act of 1988
This law is less widely known as the British public bray for the blood of those who post online threats and bully other online users of social media.
The Act makes it illegal to send letters or articles which cause distress. The Act also covers electronic communications, which means those who have been threatened and bullied do have recourse to British justice. As this is being typed, the Act is being modified, and it is to be hoped that tougher action will be brought about under this statute to bring those to justice who have broken the law. The voice of the victim also needs to be heard, and the fear is often that they will not be believed. The aspect for young people to admit to their parents through fear that they are being bullied is clearly an issue or we wouldn’t be seeing tragic suicides of our young people.
Without a doubt, tougher legislation is needed to act on these matters. However, there also has to be work by the public in educating themselves to be able to handle the process of reporting these events. Only when the police and the public work together can current laws work in bringing to justice those who commit these atrocious acts; yet for some reason, the whole bigger picture is being missed. The recent spate of disturbing online threats against women who are in the public domain has reignited this knotty topic.
While it’s hard to argue with the idea that social media network bosses need to address the problem, in reality, they can only do so much. Social media bosses can release information held on individuals or groups only on the orders of a police investigation, and this can be an arduous task. Information such as IP addresses are covered by the Data Protection Act.
The current laws can deal with this problem with some tougher action taken by the police. Only then can these bullies and trolls be brought to court and prosecuted. It’s going to take a lot more than simply tougher legislation; it will need more action on behalf of the public before prosecutions can be successful and tragedies such as the one of Hannah can be avoided in the future.