Social media is a great way for people to interact with friends and family, reach out to people with similar interests, advertise your business or liaise with the general public. However, dangers lurk behind every status update.
Remember, the law applies online as well. Facebook and Twitter and the like are publications, and so subject to the same laws as mainstream media. Your comments are not protected by free speech and you are not anonymous.
Contempt of Court
A particular problem for law enforcement and the justice system is people commenting on specific cases. Most journalists will be aware of the law, and will have editors and lawyers to prepare what is printed, but the general public does not have this luxury. For example, it seems that most people are not aware that sexual assault victims are granted life-long anonymity. If you name them you are breaking the law and can be held in contempt of court.
Jurors are forbidden to discuss a trial outside the courtroom, yet in one instance a juror set up a facebook poll asking his friends if they thought a defendant was guilty or not. In another case a juror took to messaging the defendant leading to the subsequent collapse of the trial.
The safest way to stay out of trouble in this regard is not to comment on ongoing cases. Do not name defendants, witnesses or victims. Not only will you be held in contempt of court (which can carry a prison sentence), it could cause the case to collapse. Mistrials not only cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, witnesses and victims are subjected to the stress of going through another trial.
If You’ve Got Nothing Nice to Say…
If you make a defamatory allegation on Twitter etc you can be sued for liable (for example Lord McAlpine sued Sally Bercow after she tweeted, falsely naming him as a paedophile). Be aware, even you haven’t made the allegation, if you re-tweet it you could be just as liable.
The Malicious Communications Act states that is an offence to send a letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys a message that is indecent, grossly offensive or threatening and is intended to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.
The rise of ‘The Troll’ has become a big problem. In 2012 over 650 people faced criminal charges for posts on Facebook and Twitter that were abusive, deemed harassment or were threats to kill. If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
News of the riots in London spread rapidly over social media, with some people (who were not necessarily even at the scene) encouraging others to take part in looting and criminal damage etc via social networks. ‘Inciting another to assist the commission of an indictable offence’ is against the law regardless of whether it is face to face or online, and a number of people were subsequently convicted.
Is There A Difference Between Home and Work?
For many people in a position of respect or public service, whatever you post privately can still have an effect on your career.
ACPO have published guidelines on the use of social media for police officers on staff (that includes Facebook, Twitter, blogs, video or photo sharing sites and Wikis – sites that allow collaborative information sharing). They should keep you out of trouble at work and keep you safe at home.
As a police officer you are expected to behave with integrity and impartiality, on and off duty. As such avoid using social media if you have been drinking, or if your judgement might otherwise be impaired. Don’t access personal accounts or take pictures with personal devices at work. Firstly because it is unprofessional but secondly, Geo tagging and similar apps mean you could inadvertently reveal the location of a suspect or victim.
Don’t ‘friend’ or follow known criminals, and make sure any information you provide does not breach confidentiality or Official Secrets (that includes details about cases, individuals, police operations and so on). Don’t gripe about work or colleagues online – use the proper complaints channels if you have an issue.
Think carefully about what you post. Can the content be viewed by others? Could your associations or comments affect your professional life? For example, a defence attorney in Texas, USA found the MySpace page of the arresting officer in the case. On the page the officer had listed his occupation as ‘Super Hero/ Serial Killer’. He had also posted graphic pictures of women with carvings on their skin and other items that showed an interest in intense violence. The defence attorney claimed this was evidence of the officer’s excessive force against their client.
Unfortunately the nature of law enforcement means that you may encounter some individuals who might want to embarrass or discredit you, harass or intimidate you, or even try to corrupt or blackmail you.
- Make sure you have set the highest privacy settings available
- Use a strong password and always make sure you log out
- Be careful who accept as a friend – Do you really know 465 people? Take a look at your friends list and if you don’t really know someone delete them.
- Don’t list details of your occupation or where you are stationed
- Don’t post images of you in uniform, and don’t use images of colleagues unless they agree (if you want to work covert operations don’t post any pictures of yourself)
- Don’t show images or details of your car or house
- Don’t list personal information such as emails or telephone numbers
- If you have an unusual name, consider using a alias online so you are harder to search for – your friends will still know who you are
The Benefits for Law Enforcement
Despite all the do’s and don’ts and potential pitfalls with social media, it is a useful tool for law enforcement. It allows local forces to appeal to the nation for information on crimes that have been committed and allows them to alert the public to keep an eye out if a vulnerable person has gone missing. It is also a way for the police to pass on information and tips on crime prevention.
When it comes to prosecuting criminals it can also prove beneficial – a number of suspects have been apprehended after posting images of themselves either committing a crime or with the proceeds. When it comes to prosecutions over abusive or threatening messages, libellous comments and so forth, the evidence is there in black and white, provided by the perpetrator themselves.
* Google yourself and see what comes up – if there is a social media listing can you view the photos and personal information without logging in? If so, so can everyone else which means you should change your privacy settings.
* Think before you post anything – Could what you say be considered prejudiced or offensive? Remember, it is much harder to show sarcasm or humour online without the benefit of your tone of voice to convey the joke
* Don’t advertise where you’re going to be – you don’t want someone with a grudge knowing you are going to the pup quiz on Friday. Similarly saying your jetting off on your summer holiday lets everyone know your house is empty