When is Online Abuse Just Banter?

When is Online Abuse Just Banter?
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

When should a troll be prosecuted? Get this question wrong and multiple rape threats can go unpunished. Get it wrong in the other direction and teens can get arrested for sending a mildly offensive tweet to whichever celebrity is currently “having a moment”.

Online abuse, an unpleasant background rumble since the birth of the internet, is going through a clamorous period: a burst of xenophobia followed Brexit; Labour MPs are currently submitting page upon page of online abuse from party members to an internal inquiry.

Pity Neil Moore QC, then, advisor to the DPP, who is charged with deciding where, exactly, the line lies.

Along with his team of four within the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), he must work out whether an instance of online abuse sent him by the police is is “grossly offensive” and therefore worth referring up to the courts, or whether it is - as he put it, rather unwisely, to a packed ‘#reclaimtheinternet’ conference today - “banter”.

“Grossly offensive” isn’t defined, said Mr Moore: instead the team “judge each event on its own context.” “Banter or humor, even if painful to some – does not qualify as abuse.”

And there comes the first problem. Context. During the conference, Maria Miller MP pointed out that Muslim women have reported “getting things which they find grossly offensive, but which don’t fall under the law”. How does his team square that?

Well not through its ethnic diversity, for one thing. “We do have one person from Scandinavia”, Mr Moore says. “I should also say I’m gay. I’ll add that to the mix too.”

However, he says, the team does make sure it meets with the relevant communities for the case, or asks for a “community impact statement”.

Yet to the ‘#reclaimtheinternet’ conference, at least, the bar for abuse for Muslim women seemed pretty high.

Under “banter”, as far The Huffington Post UK could gather, would fall most of SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh’s experiences, who told the conference: “I have about 100 files of complaints with the police. There are four instances out of those 100 files that supposedly meet the threshold for prosecution.”

“I get things like – go off and do things to camels.” “People expect you to deal with it.”

There were other complaints with the system, too. Comedian Kate Smurthwaite told the conference that she had reported “death and rape threats” to the police, only to be met with “excuses” (and that’s before the reports even made it to the CPS).

Maria Miller also noted that death threats may not not taken seriously enough:

The CPS has made great strides since the embarrassing “Twitter Joke Trial” of 2012: a case - between the DPP and a man who had tweeted a joke about blowing up an airport - which dragged on for two and a half years. It recently updated its guidelines for the treatment online abuse. Yet it still has some way to go before it gains public trust - particularly as its laws on who can and who cannot be prosecuted for posting something online remain unclear to most.

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