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Online Abuse. As Serious as Face to Face?

8 September 2017
 September 8, 2017

Due to the rise of social media platforms within recent years, there has been a rapid increase in online abuse that people are receiving on a daily basis. Within the past few weeks, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have told prosecutors in England and Wales that online hate crimes should be treated as seriously as face to face abuse.

Following public concern about the increasing amount of racist, homophobic and anti-religious attacks on social media, the CPS felt no choice in the matter and therefore pushed for this new legislation to be passed.  This included revised legal documents with guidance for prosecutors on how they should make decisions on criminal charges. The rules of this new regulation officially put online abuse on the same level as offline hate crimes. We ask; should these two criminal offences be treated the same?

The legal enforcement was initially sparked after Seyi Akiwowo, a councillor in the London borough of Newham who was targeted by racist ‘trolls’ online after giving a speech regarding refugees. She and other councilors were shocked at the level of racist abuse she received after a video of her speech went viral.

Although a high number of online hate crimes revolve around racism, people are receiving similar offences surrounding a vast array social topics. This recent legal enforcement has caused a hot debate amongst people as some would argue online attacks are not as serious as face to face offences. In contrast, some would disagree and believe the new regulation is fair and supports equal prosecution.

Due to the internet being part of the virtual world where everything happens through online communications, some argue that abuse on the internet isn’t as serious seeing it cannot cause physical harm to a person. This debate has been triggered through a difference in views amongst people who do not believe a person who commits face to face abuse should be prosecuted the same as someone who makes offences online. In addition, it is argued that there is a clear difference in severity between both crimes as face to face abuse can cause injury and even the risk of death upon a person. This debate is further escalated due to a high percentage of online abuse cases being carried out by children and the younger ‘teen’ generation. The CPS are currently in the process of deciding whether exceptions should be made due to children not being able to understand and appreciate the potential harm they could have caused.

Some may criticise the new approach and guidance for prosecutors as heavy-handed. But we must remember the common thread that links online purveyors of hate with those who commit physical abuse crimes. That is, the desire to undermine and instil fear in those they target.

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, stated that “shouted in the face on the street or personal comments being tweeted, the impact of hateful abuse on a victim can be equally devastating”. She added, “The internet and social media in particular have provided new platforms for abuse”. Although online abuse cannot directly cause physical harm upon a person, it can cause a person to become mentally unstable which can be just as serious as physical harm.

Before deciding upon the consequences for these crimes, it is important to access the levels of danger and risk that the victim is exposed to. Take a care worker for example or an estate agent who regularly work alone with members of the public. If they were to be confronted by an aggressive person whist working would this be considered more or less dangerous as a stranger tweeting them verbal abuse or writing on their Facebook wall? Would the person be exposed to the same level of risk? And would both situations lead to the same outcome for the victim?

From a personal safety perspective, this change could certainly help to reduce the level of online abuse that individuals receive. If people are more aware of the consequences of committing these crimes they may think before writing something online. Nevertheless, this change will not completely wipe out online abuse and incidents that happen online. Therefore, it is important that you try to limit the chances of it happening to you. However, the answer lies with you. Should online abuse be taken as seriously as face to face abuse crimes?

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