A statement from the Metropolitan police on Wednesday, warning internet users that they may be committing a crime if they watched the online video of the brutal murder of journalist James Foley caused controversy this week.
One legal expert, David Alan Green, who is head of the litigation and media practices at Preiskel and Co, wrote in the Financial Times that this was an “alarmist and false statement”, while Steve Kuncewicz of Bermans told The Drum that “people had a right to be worried when it appeared that the Metropolitan police didn’t understand the law”.
With prosecutions relating to Twitter doubling in the last two years and over 13,000 crimes being reported in connection with Facebook in 2013, The Drum has suggested ten ways your social media activity could earn you a trip to the courts.
- Libel someone: Posting on Twitter and Facebook is regarded by the law as “publication” so is covered by the same laws that regulate newspapers and magazines. As the case of Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly accused of sex offences, even retweeting a defamatory claim can leave you open to prosecution. The peer dropped his original threat to sue any Twitter user with more than 500 followers who repeated the accusations, or anyone who retweeted any tweets that did, but he did get £15,000 in damages from the wife of Parliament's speaker Sally Bercow who had tweeted: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”.
- Commit Contempt of court: Again it’s that pesky publication issue. When you put your opinion about a current court case on social media you are expected to obey the strict rules legal journalists have to observe. In 2011 Alan Sugar was ordered by a judge to remove a tweet about MP’s expenses, in case it influenced a jury. At the recent phone-hacking trial prejudical tweets led to one user being issued a formal “take-down notice” while another was forced to give an apology to the court for suggesting that the judge was “bent”.
- Break a court order: Security guard James Bains only narrowly avoided jail last year for posting a picture which broke a worldwide ban on publication of images of Jon Venables and Robert Thomson who were ten years old when they were convicted of murdering toddler James Bulger. The security guard initially claimed his account had been hacked but later admitted tweeting the image and was given a 15-month suspended sentence.
- Name a victim: Legal rules prevent the press naming anyone who has been subjected to a sexual assault and the same applies to social media. In 2012 footballer Ched Evans was convicted of raping a 19 year-old woman. A number of people took to Twitter to denounce the victim for “money-grabbing” with some identifying her. Seven men and two women were later found guilty over the affair and were fined by Welsh magistrates despite claiming they didn’t even know they were breaking the law.
- Make a joke: In 2010 frustrated traveller Paul Chambers tweeted "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" Despite claiming he was joking Chambers was convicted of sending a "menacing electronic communication” and fined £365 plus costs. Chambers’ conviction was finally quashed after two appeals and a social media campaign tagged #TwitterJokeTrial. However he lost his job as a result.
- Be offensive: The police and courts have become far more active on the issue of internet “trolls” in the last few years, realising the hurt and damage they can cause. In January this year Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo were both jailed for sending abusive tweets to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy. After the Clutha bar disaster in 2013, when a helicopter crashed into a crowded Glasgow pub, Scotland’s top law officer warned that anyone who posted insulting comments about the tragedy could be imprisoned for up to five years.
- Racism: Last December two men were arrested for anti-semitic tweets after a match between West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur. They are not the only football fans to be prosecuted for bigoted comments on social media. Earlier this year Celtic supporter Michael Convery was given six months in prison for sending racist tweets to two Rangers players.
- Admit a crime: Portsmouth man Michael Ruse, who was near the end of his two-week trial for assault, logged on to the social media site to tell a friend “I think I’ve got away with it.” After the remark was brought to the attention of the judge Ruse changed his plea to guilty and was sent to jail for 13 months. Ruse is not alone in giving evidence against himself on Facebook - in February dim-witted crooks Jonathan Dougan and Mathew Murphy received nine years in jail after posting pictures of themselves alongside motorbikes, cars and bottles of champagne they had stolen in Manchester.
- Troll yourself: This February Michelle Chapman became the first person in the UK to be jailed for sending offensive messages to herself. After a family argument the 24 year-old created fake Facebook accounts for her stepfather and others and then used them to send hundreds of “vile sexual taunts” to her own page. Chapman was discovered when she made a complaint to the police about posts and was later sentenced to 20 months in prison for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
- Run a poll: In 2008 a Burnley juror took to Facebook to ask what she should decide in a child abduction case. After posting confidential evidence on the case on her public page the juror set up a poll so her friends could vote on what they thought her verdict should be. Despite this being a serious contempt of court the judge decided to be lenient and, luckily for her, the un-named woman was only dismissed from the jury.