Real lives, real crimes: A study of digital crime and policing

Chapter 6. How are forces responding to online anti-social behaviour?

6.1. The increasing willingness of individuals to organise their social events, to strike up, maintain and close down friendships and relationships, and to report their lives online for others to follow and comment upon has led to a substantial increase in social media sites.

6.2. There has been a corresponding increase in the number of complaints that social media sites are being used as vehicles by some to engage in anti-social behaviour directed towards others – be they former friends or partners, or even strangers because the victims’ social media profiles have singled them out for unwarranted attention.

6.3. One officer told us that:

“[m]ost of our time is spent dealing with social media bullying and harassment offences.”

Are officers aware of relevant resources and advice?

Progress bar: Are officers aware of relevant resources and advice?

6.4. Our study has led us to conclude that one of the inhibitors to an effective policing response to this problem is a lack of awareness of what resources and advice are available to staff. A group of frontline managers told us that:

“staff feel frustrated with their lack of ability to deal with investigations that involved social networking sites”.

6.5. We were told of one case which illustrates the point. A complaint was made to neighbourhood police officers which involved the misuse of a social media site. The officers contacted the relevant social networking company based in the United States of America requesting a statement and the account user’s details. The company declined to provide the details. Consequently, the officers considered the enquiry to be complete and this element of the investigation was closed.

6.6. The officers did not consider making further enquiries with specialists within the force who could have advised on the correct course of action to be taken.

6.7. We considered the guidance which was available to staff to support them in dealing with online incidents of anti-social behaviour. Our starting point was with the social networking sites themselves.

6.8. A representative of one social media site told us that:

“[t]here is a knowledge gap with officers not being trained in digital investigations. They do not know how to obtain the most basic of information.”

6.9. We understand that initiatives are in place to address this apparent lack of knowledge. For example, one leading social media company has provided free training to the 43 forces about how to obtain evidence from social media organisations.

6.10. The same representative told us that the company had provided guidance to all forces which could be made available to police officers and staff in order to help them advise the public. This included:

  • tips to help the public to stay safe online;
  • how to help a person who is posting messages online that indicate that they are at risk of suicide or in need of urgent help;
  • how parents and families can respond if their child has been the target of online bullying; and
  • how education staff can respond when a student has been the target of bullying.

6.11. It is possible that other social media sites and victims’ groups may be prepared to help the police to raise the awareness of police officers and staff. Our view is strengthened by a brief trawl of other social media and relevant websites. Each has a substantial bank of information which police officers and staff would find of help when supporting those who come forward to them as victims of online anti-social behaviour.

Useful resources

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

Suzy Lamplugh Trust

Are the police aware of the vulnerability of victims?

Progress bar: Are the police aware of the vulnerability of victims?

6.12. As we have said throughout this study, a significant cause for concern is the police’s failure fully to recognise the vulnerability of the victims of digital crime. This may be more apparent when the victim suffers a significant fraud that has deprived him or her of thousands of pounds or is a victim of blackmail, but it is also relevant when the offence is one of anti-social behaviour.

6.13. The essential point to remember is that the gravity of the offence and its impact on the victim is not lessened because it is carried out online. In some ways, the vulnerability of the online victim may be increased because the number of people who become aware of the allegation or who read the script of the offender cannot ever be fully known. As a result, many victims are left with the fear that they will be recognised as they walk down the street as a result of what their online assailant has said about them.

6.14. We found that some police officers and staff were dismissive of complaints about the misuse of social media sites. We were met with comments such as:

“[w]hat do they [the victim] expect us to do about it?”

“I do not use social media; how am I supposed to investigate it?”

and with regard to a domestic abuse incident, we were told that:

“[h]e will not carry out the threat to stab her; otherwise he would not have posted the threat online.”

6.15. These comments demonstrate a worrying lack of understanding both of the threat and risk to the victim and, as a consequence, a failure positively to support them. We set out below an example with which we were provided which captures how victims can suffer as a result of such behaviour.

Danielle's story: Bullying victim

6.16. Danielle’s is not an isolated example. Police officers, parents, social workers and school teachers would recognise her experience in respect of a large number of individuals who have come to their attention.

6.17. It is, therefore, all the more disturbing that one officer told us:

“[i]t is just kids on Facebook”.

6.18. Such a response is indefensible.


6.19. Each chief constable needs to make sure that his or her officers and staff understand the significance of online anti-social behaviour, and that they are able to provide effective support and advice to those who are its victims.

Return to contents page
Read Chapter 7: What specialist resources are available to investigators?

Judith's story: Online stalking victim - part one

Judith's story: Online stalking victim - part two