Online hate campaigns have rocketed, with stalking and death threats rife on social media sites such as Facebook.
Thousands are living in fear and police have seen huge rises in reports of the web crimes, many of which are part of break-ups and family feuds played out in public.
Some cases have resulted in violence, rape and child abuse, while others featured revenge porn – where people share explicit snaps of their exes, our research shows.
Freedom of Information requests were made to all 43 police forces in England and Wales for incidents of threats and harassment through social media.
Of the 26 to respond, 18 recorded increases in the past three years, with 13 seeing rises of more than 50% and five of 100% or more. One force even saw a rise of 225%.
However, Chief Constable Andy Trotter, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said legal guidance made it difficult to prosecute.
He said: “Every force has specialist investigators who look into crimes with a link to social media. As the threshold for prosecution in relation to crimes using social media has been set very high, this means that only the most serious offences will be prosecuted.”
The UK has 33 million Facebook users and 10 million people on Twitter. Police records show Facebook in particular is being used increasingly to launch hate campaigns.
Devon and Cornwall police saw a 225% rise in complaints – up from 138 in 2010/11 to 449 in 2012/13. Northern Ireland had a 186% rise and North Wales reports soared 124%. Staffordshire’s doubled and Warwickshire’s went up by 90%.
Humberside saw an 82% rise in crime on Facebook and Twitter – from 116 in 2010/11 to 211 in 2012/13. Offences included rape and meeting a child after sexual grooming.
Social media sites have also been used to breach restraining orders, track down police officers and pervert the course of justice by intimidating jurors. Victims were wrongly accused of being paedophiles and, in a number of cases, harassment led to violence and sex attacks. Threats included one man posting: “You’ve got 24 hours to get out or I will set you on fire – I’m going to kill you.”
And one officer’s report stated: “Ex-partner has been sending texts including threats to post explicit pictures of the aggrieved on Facebook. These have then been posted over a number of days.” It comes as the US and New Zealand prepare laws to prosecute those who use revenge porn to humiliate victims.
In the UK study, actual complaints could be even higher as police only included incidents where named social media sites were mentioned. The responses did not indicate how many resulted in a conviction.
The CPS said: “If cases involve a credible threat or messages that amount to a campaign of harassment, we will prosecute robustly. Where messages are offensive we have to strike a difficult balance between the right to free speech and whether something is so grossly offensive as to be criminal.”
Forces to buck the national trend and see a reduction in social media crime included Norfolk, Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire and Wiltshire.
‘We moved after Facebook threats to torch our home’
Former bailiff Mark King was forced to uproot his family after Facebook users threatened to burn their home to the ground.
An argument with a neighbour over minor car damage escalated when she blamed Mark and wife Jennifer, 39, for having too many parked cars in the street.
Dad-of-two Mark, 45, said: “Jennifer and I weren’t on Facebook, so we knew nothing about it until a friend came round with his laptop and said, ‘You have to see this’.
“The neighbour had put our names and address on there, saying she hoped someone would burn our house down. People were posting saying they would arrange it.
“There was reams and reams of it – it just went viral. People were saying they would glass me in the face if they saw me in town.
“Every time we heard the letter-box go, we were thinking, ‘Is someone pouring petrol in?’”
Jennifer was afraid to be left alone in the house with the children and the couple sought advice from a lawyer friend. But they were told the police were unlikely to act because the threats had not been made directly to them.
Within six months, the family had sold their home in Thorpe St Andrew, Norfolk, and moved. Mark said: “We lived in quite a prosperous area but this can happen anywhere. We were driven out of our home.”
What to do if abusers target you
By Graham Jones, internet psychologist and author of 11 books on the web
There are practical steps victims can take if anything negative appears about them on social network sites.
Firstly, it is best not to reply. That just winds up the situation, making it more likely someone will respond and it will go even further.
And victims of negative behaviour shouldn’t talk about it on their own page. It is also a good idea to alert the social network to the abuse. And the police may need to be informed.
Currently not enough priority or resources have been given to the online arena and more specialist police officers are needed.
Several Government-led initiatives on the internet demonstrate a distinct lack of understanding of what’s happening in the online world .
Our politicians either do not understand the internet, are being given poor advice or are not listening to the advice they receive.