In the information era the use of social networking sites and blogs has soared and for many, if not most people, some form of social media or online activity engaging with others is an intrinsic part of their daily lives.
It has provided many with a platform to seek the democracy, free speech and freedom of information to which they are entitled (as illustrated by the Arab uprisings), equally the Big Brother-esque internet censorship by nations such as China, Iran and Myanmar (to name a few of the culprits) reflect the erosion (and indeed lack of) of civil liberties in those countries and the lack of respect that those respective powers that be have for their citizens.
On the other end of the spectrum, the internet has provided many ordinary people with an opportunity to communicate and in a sense 'virtually socialise' with those that they wouldn't normally come into contact with or engage with in their everyday offline life.
Many high profile people and celebrities have benefitted from use of social networking sites, raising their profile and increasing their fan base. Others have fallen as a result of their online behaviour, be it through hasty tweets or blog posts of a vitriolic nature equating to a public mud-slinging match, to the technological sex scandals from the likes of Vernon Kay and Jason Manford, to politicians such as Anthony Weiner.
As we have seen, these scandals can be deal breakers and finish careers. When a topic is the focus of the mainstream media it will almost always be trending on Twitter, equally at times it is true that the mainstream media stories will be as a result of a topic trending on Twitter.
Irrespective of which was the chicken and which the egg, the message is clear, the relationship is symbiotic and this powerful tool is one that can hugely benefit us all, be it as individuals or as a nation. But as with anything that provides such sweet delights, it can also prove a bitter sweet experience and leave one with more than just a nasty after taste.
Like many others, I too engage in social networking on a daily basis and find it useful and enjoyable not only professionally, but also personally. However, I have often been horrified witnessing others being 'trolled' on online forums, from various social networking sites to message boards for articles on newspaper websites.
I have also personally been subjected to vitriolic abuse, from both complete strangers on Twitter to acquaintances who are as meek and mild mannered in person as they are aggressive and abusive online. Not only do people appear to adopt an online persona which simply does not sit with the real life person behind the username, but I have definitely noticed that for some of the trolls, the waves of vitriol and bile, if left unchecked, can metamorphose into an enormous tsunami of poisonous hatred and abuse beyond what can ever be acceptable either morally or legally.
Yesterday morning I appeared on ITV1's Daybreak to discuss the case of 25-year-old Sean Duffy who was successfully prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act. Duffy engaged in an online hate campaign in which he desecrated Facebook memorial sites for deceased youngsters, as a result of which he was jailed for 18 weeks and banned from using social networking sites for five years.
The case highlighted the increasing craze for 'trolling' where internet users (or rather abusers) leave deliberately offensive, abusive, antagonistic and bullying messages on social networking sites and message boards.
There is little doubt that this is done with malicious intent to cause harm or distress to their victims via their online posts, which in turn appears to provide the trolls with their sick kicks. Duffy's behaviour was sufficient to allow successful prosecution under the Malicious Communications Act which includes specific electronic communication as a criminal offence when deemed indecent and/or threatening/offensive and false (and known to be false by sender) and where the purpose is to cause distress and/or anxiety to the recipient.
It is a common misnomer that the internet is 'lawless' and unregulated. There is a legal framework in place for action to be taken against those who abuse others on the internet, and whilst it doesn't necessarily offer a complete solution to the various legal issues that arise from these cases (such as the responsibility of many of the social media sites themselves to regulate and be responsible for offensive posts published), it does not mean that internet abusers cannot and will not be punished.
There have also been a spate of defamation cases in relation to libellous posts on Facebook, Twitter and blogs and I have little doubt that there will be several more libel actions and cyberbullying cases utilising the Malicious Communications Act and Protection from Harassment Act. I hope that the severity of the punishments will serve as a deterrent to those who seem to lose their sanity and sense of what is acceptable online and torment, bully and defame innocent people.
It is one of the greatest blessings of living in a democracy such as ours that allows us to have freedom of expression. The age of the information era and the implosion of social media has undoubtedly enhanced that freedom.
But with that freedom must come responsibility and liability where appropriate. So think carefully before you tweet or post in haste, because the law has given us a very clear signal that if you do not you may well repent at your leisure.
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