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Tackling the online trolls - the facts

What is a criminal offence on social media?

Most of us use social media responsibly to link with friends and share views and opinions. But some people use the facelessness of the internet to commit serious criminal offences.

Many of us will have experienced some form of negative remark from another user online – a rude tweet or an upsetting message. But when does airing an opinion online venture into criminal territory?

There are three criminal offences which someone can be charged with if they make offensive remarks online:

  • Malicious communications
  • Inciting hatred, alarm or distress
  • Committing a public order offence

Police and the internet

The number of social media based crime, known as ‘cyber-crime’, is increasing each year. Last year, we recorded about 1,700 cases. An inflammatory tweet is just the starting point for any investigation – but this on its own is not enough for us to bring criminal charges against someone.

graphic of social media icons

Attribution is the main determining factor for any cyber-crime or trolling investigation. We need to prove that

  • The offensive material was sent by an individual – it is simply not enough to show that it can be traced back to their computer or device
  • We have to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the individual was the author and publisher of the remark.

To do this, we have to forensically examine all electronic devices owned by the individual. This goes much further than simply obtaining their password and scanning their computer, tablet or phone. Specialists will forensically examine the device with a view to gaining the evidence needed to secure a successful prosecution.

Most trolls use complex encryptions and coding which can take weeks, sometimes months, for specialist officers to even get access into the device. When the codes have been cracked and the encryptions deciphered, we then have to find the digital fingerprint that links the online comment to the individual. The burden of proof needed in any case of trolling is very high compared to other, ‘real-life’ crimes.

How to protect yourself?

There are a few simple things you can do

  • Don’t reply to messages that offend you. This only encourages the troll to send more messages.
  • Take a screenshot of the offensive message and keep a record – this will help an investigation
  • Report the message to the social media site (this will be an option on the post itself)
  • Block the user so they can’t contact you again.
  • Review your privacy settings. On Facebook make sure you’ve locked down your account so only people you know can contact you. On Twitter consider making your profile private for a short time.
  • Sign out and take a break from social media. Talk to someone you trust for support or call the police on 101.

What is being done to manage the problem?


Twitter have started rolling out changes to the way you can report posts, making it easier for you to keep a record of threatening messages for law enforcement purposes. Read their blog.


See what happens when you report something on Facebook.


Internet trolls who target people with abusive or offensive material online will face up to two years in prison. More serious offences will be dealt with in the Crown Court and there will not be a time limit for police and Crown Prosecution Service to bring a prosecution.

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