Social Media Prosecutions Could Vary According To Social Influence

The number and type of prosecutions being carried out based on provocative, offensive and menacing posts made by users of social networks has led to the consideration that more influential users should face harsher punishments.

Keir Starmer, the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, has said that more popular tweeters may be more likely to face prosecution for a “grossly offensive” tweet, while someone with only a few dozen followers might go unpunished for the same offence. This comes in the wake of concerns that free speech is being threatened by the fact that police seem ready to act against people who post potentially offensive material online.

There are also concerns that the number of prosecutions made under section 127 of the Communications Act, which outlaws “grossly offensive” messages over telecoms networks, would soon exceed the combined totals of every other offence on the statute book.

Next week the DPP will hold a series of meetings with the police, publishers and internet firms, and he hopes to issue some interim guidelines in the next few weeks to aid prosecutors in making more appropriate decisions. It is likely that the circumstances under which section 127 can be used to prosecute will change.

As well as someone’s ‘social reach’ – how many Twitter followers they have for example – Mr Starmer suggested that the intent behind material that could be considered grossly offensive should be assessed, as well as the effect it has on its audience. He said:

“If you send a message to the family of April Jones one hour after they have been told their little girl is dead, that is very different to you sending an email to your mate.”

Do you think that the recent social media based prosecutions are justified, or is there a need to examine the laws and circumstances to make sure that the right to free speech – and ultimately the right to offend – is preserved?