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Hundreds of millions of messages and posts are sent everyday on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Many are considered offensive but do they amount to a criminal offence?

Some posts may be upsetting or distasteful or express an unpopular view but are not necessarily criminal.

Others may be grossly offensive and therefore could well meet the threshold for prosecution.

Others may be part of a campaign of abuse or credible threats of violence against an individual or group of people which likewise may well lead to prosecution.

Please note: this guidance is not intended to stipulate what police can or will do in individual cases. It is offered as advice on what social media users can do themselves and a guide to what prosecutors can do in general.

When is offensive content criminal?

The Crown Prosecution Service’s ‘Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media’ set out four categories of criminal offence:  

  1. Credible threats (to a person’s life or safety or property)
  2. Communications targeting specific individuals (including persistent harassment and ongoing abuse)
  3. Breach of court orders (for example identifying people protected by law)
  4. Communications which are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false

The guidance makes the distinction between the first three categories, which will be robustly prosecuted, and the last category to which a high threshold for prosecution applies.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC explains: “These are cases that can give rise to complex issues, but to avoid the potential chilling effect that might arise from high numbers of prosecutions in cases in which a communication might be considered grossly offensive, we must recognise the fundamental right to freedom of expression and only proceed with prosecution when a communication is more than offensive, shocking or disturbing, even if distasteful or painful to those subjected to it.”

In all cases, prosecutors will consider the full context of the communication and the public interest test.

If you’re not sure if a message is criminal, call us on 101 if it’s not urgent or 999 in an emergency.

What can the police do about it?

If we consider a message or post to be potentially criminal, we will take appropriate action.

This could involve arrest and bringing a prosecution, especially in those cases involving a sustained campaign of harassment or abuse or where someone's life is threatened.

In cases where offence is caused, we will look at the whole picture and speak with the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether or not a prosecution is proportionate.

The factors police and prosecutors will consider include whether it is in the public interest to pursue the case, how vulnerable is the victim and what resources are required to trace the offender via social networking sites that often operate abroad and to different legislation.

If it’s not proportionate, for example, if the person posting the offensive message was genuinely unaware of the effect of their actions and the victim was not distressed by the content, we can use a community resolution. These are common-sense approaches to such problems where we work with the victim to agree an appropriate outcome which could include, for example, an apology. 

I’ve seen something on a social media site that offends me

There will be times when something is said that is considered so grossly offensive it may constitute a criminal offence.

The Crown Prosecution Service’s guidance explains the level at which it considers offensive content to be criminal.

If you consider the content to be criminal, or if you are unsure, call police on 101 if it’s not urgent or 999 in an emergency.

Always keep a record of the content, by taking a screenshot, for example

However, there is also much content on social media that is offensive or upsetting but which is not necessarily a criminal offence.

All good social media sites have facilities which anyone can use to report such content and we encourage you to familiarise yourself with how these work.

If you are thinking of replying to a message or post, consider what you say and what effect you will have. For example:
• Is someone being abusive or offensive in order to provoke a response from you?
• Would replying make the situation worse?
• If you’re posting in a public forum, would a similar response have an adverse impact on other people?

If the answer to any of these is ‘yes,’ it may not be worth responding.

If, for example, you’re contributing to a lively discussion which encourages freedom of speech and others to challenge your ideas, then a response may be appropriate. You may also find other people share and endorse your views, challenge those views considered distasteful or upsetting, or are willing to sensibly discuss them.

I’m offended by regular messages or posts about me

If you’re receiving regular offensive or abusive messages on social media or elsewhere, this could be a form of stalking or harassment.

Keep a record of the messages and as much information as you can about who sent them and when.

Call police on 101 or 999 if it's an emergency.

I'm genuinely concerned that someone has sent a message threatening violence

Credible threats of violence to someone's life or property expressed via social media can amount to a criminal offence and could be prosecuted.

As above, keep a record of the message or post and as much information as you can about who sent it and when.

Call police on 101 or 999 if it's an emergency.

Someone is being racist or homophobic or offensive about people with a disability, for example

Any form of abuse, threat or intimidation which targets an individual or group because of who they are is a hate incident or hate crime.

These are incidents or offences which are motivated by hostility, prejudice or hatred towards someone's actual or perceived: colour of skin, race, ethnicity, nationality and/or national origin, disability, sexual orientation, faith, religion or belief, gender or gender identity, age.

Click here for more information about hate crimes and incidents.