The Dark Side of Social Media; Does the Law Need to do More?
It is an undeniable fact that social media is a huge part of society today; many would go as far to suggest that it has ‘taken over our lives’ and relationships.
Indeed, social media can have a positive function in our society. It provides individuals with a platform to voice their beliefs and opinions, for example, in pursuit of political or social change as evidenced by the recent Black Lives Matter movement. However, with this platform and freedom to voice beliefs online comes the dark side of social media. Recent times have seen a rise in what has been coined as the ‘trolling’ of individuals; and I don’t mean the kind you would find under a bridge… but rather behind a keyboard.
A ‘troll’ refers to an individual who posts an offensive message in desperate need of a reaction. The law currently regulates online abuse and trolling through section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which makes it an offence if one:
“Sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message… that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”
The Malicious Communications Act 1998 also regulates cyber-bullying. This Act makes it an offence for a person to send:
“A letter, electronic communication or article…which conveys a message which is indecent or grossly offensive, a threat or information which is false… or any article or electronic communication which is…indecent or grossly offensive nature”
Ultimately, any indecent or grossly offensive message posted on social media can constitute a criminal offence. So you’re probably thinking, that’s the issue solved right? If these laws are in place surely they are effective enough to prevent such occurrences? WRONG! In fact, according to anti-bullying charity ditchthelabel, in a survey of 10,000 young people 17% experienced online abuse in 2017, with an additional 26% developing suicidal thoughts as a result. Furthermore, the National Crime Prevention found that 43% of teens had been subject to online abuse in the past year.
The issue of trolling has been especially worsened through the emergence of so called ‘influencers’ from reality shows such as Love Island. For these individuals, trolling has been so prominent that it has led to significant mental health issues and suicides. To date, the show has recorded three suicides, including contestants Sophie Grandon and Mike Thalassiti, since it aired in 2015. These deaths were both linked to online trolling.
More recently, Love Island presenter Caroline Flack took her own life due to unbearable cyber abuse. After facing a domestic abuse charge, Flack faced considerable online abuse, and urged social media users in a post to ‘Be Kind’ when utilising the platforms. Sadly, this was not adhered to and she subsequently took her own life on the 15th of February 2020.
These shocking statistics and suicides beg the question as to whether the current laws do enough to combat and regulate online abuse and trolling. Indeed, various celebrities have spoken out about the need for the law to impose tighter regulations on social media platforms. For example, love island star Rosie Williams spoke of an incident in which the social media platform Instagram refused to remove an abusive comment on her post despite her reporting it. She urges the government to do more to hold social media sites to account due to the negative impact such comments have had on her mental health, such as increasing her self-consciousness and anxieties.
Therefore, recent statistics, suicides and flimsy regulations imposed on social media platforms make clear that the current law needs to do more to deter online abuse. This begs the question…what is the way forward? It has been suggested that the law should impose liability on social networking sites, with the aim of encouraging them to take more initiative to regulate cyber-bullying. Moreover, some have proposed categorising trolling as a specific offence in order to more easily hold perpetrators to account. Further suggestive ideas include defining the loose term ‘grossly offensive’ more specifically to raise awareness of online behaviour which is acceptable and that which is not.
Although the future of the law in this area is uncertain, what is clear is that the current law needs to DO MORE. Where do you think the law should go?