Online safety - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

4  Social media

Nature and scale

87. From chat rooms to Facebook, from Snapchat to Twitter, social media platforms play to the human desire to keep in touch. Online social media provide new ways of interacting and for modified ways of behaving. Everyone with a connected computer is now a potential publisher and some people publish with too little regard for the consequences—for others as well as themselves.

88. The most recent research[119] from the NSPCC shows that 28% of young people who have a social networking profile have experienced something that has upset them in the last year. These experiences include cyber-stalking, being subjected to aggressive or offensive language, being sent sexually explicit pictures and being asked to provide personal or private information. However, the greatest proportion of the group (37%) had experienced "trolling".[120] Alongside this evidence that online bullying is clearly a problem for young people, the latest Childline statistics show an 87% increase in 2012/13 in the number of young people contacting the NSPCC for support and advice about being bullied via social networking sites, chat rooms, online gaming sites, or via their mobile phones. The NSPCC attributes this trend in part to the increasing ownership by young people of smartphones and tablets.

89. The results of a July 2013 survey by the bullying prevention charity, BeatBullying, provide further evidence of both the nature and scale of online bullying and the dangerous sides of the internet:

·  One in five 12-16 year-olds have interacted with strangers online

·  More than a third of 12-16 year-olds go online most often in their own bedroom

·  One in five 12-16 year-olds think being bullied online is part of life

·  More than a quarter of 12-16 year-olds admitted to witnessing bullying online, but only half of these did something about it

·  The primary reasons young people gave for not doing anything about the online bullying was being worried about being bullied themselves or not knowing who to speak to about it

·  Almost a quarter (23%) of 12-16 year-olds spend more than five hours a day online during school holidays; more than double the number during term time (10%)

·  The majority (80%) of 12-16 year-olds said they feel safe online, compared to only 60% of the younger age group (8-11 year-olds). But worryingly, one in five (22%) of 12-16 year-olds said they think being bullied online is part of life

·  For those 12-16 year-olds who did do something about the cyber bullying, most went to their parents for advice; however, only 38% of parents think their children are at risk of being bullied online.[121]

90. Anthony Smythe of BeatBullying told us: "Our research would suggest that one in three children have experienced cyber-bullying. More worrying is that you will ?nd that one in 13 are subject to persistent cyber-bullying and that is what leads to the cases of suicide and self- harm that we have seen over the recent summer months."[122] Our own conversations with young people left us in little doubt as to the corrosive effect of bullying-often perpetrated by "friends".

91. Two of the best known social media platforms (there are many) provided both written and oral evidence in the course of our inquiry: Facebook and Twitter. Written evidence from Facebook begins by describing its mission "to make the world more open and connected and to give people the power to share."[123] Facebook is a global community of more than 1.15 billion people and hundreds of thousands of organisations. Facebook works "to foster a safe and open environment where everyone can freely discuss issues and express their views, while respecting the rights of others."[124]

92. Twitter told us of their 200 million active users across the world and 15 million in the UK alone; the platform now serves 500 million tweets a day. "Like most technology companies we are clear that there is no single silver bullet for online safety, rather it must be a combined approach from technology companies, educators, governments and parents to ensure that we equip people with the digital skills they will need to navigate the web and wider world going forward."[125]

The law

93. Evidence from the DCMS makes the general point that behaviour that is illegal off-line is also illegal online.[126] Communications sent via social media are capable of amounting to criminal offences in relation to a range of legislation, including:

·  Communications which may constitute credible threats of violence to the person or damage to property.

·  Communications which specifically target an individual or individuals and which may constitute harassment or stalking within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

·  Communications which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.[127]

94. The Director for Public Prosecutions published guidelines for prosecutors when considering cases involving communications via social media. Relevant legislation includes: Malicious Communications Act 1988; section 127, Communications Act 2003; Offences Against the Person Act 1861; Computer Misuse Act 1990; Protection from Harassment Act 1997; Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; section 15, Sexual Offences Act 2003 (for grooming).

95. The DCMS cites data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales which shows that, in 2011/12, 3.5% of adults (aged 16 and over) had experienced upsetting or illegal images. 1.4% had experienced abusive or threatening behaviour. Some of these experiences are likely not to have met the criminal threshold.[128]

96. BeatBullying have argued for greater clarity in the law; they told us:

    More than 1,700 cases involving abusive messages sent online or via text message reached English and Welsh courts in 2012. However, cyberbullying is not a specific criminal offence in the UK. Some types of harassing or threatening behaviour—or communications—could be a criminal offence. These laws were introduced many years before Twitter, Facebook and Ask.FM, and they have failed to keep pace with the demands of modern technology. Unfortunately, serious cases of cyberbullying, which have often resulted in suicide, have dominated our headlines in recent months. That is why BeatBullying have been calling on the Government to review current legislation and make bullying and cyberbullying a criminal offence so that children and young people have the protection they need and deserve, at the earliest opportunity, to avoid this escalation.[129]

97. BeatBullying's evidence went on to cite the recent Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill as a possible vehicle for introducing bullying and cyberbullying as a form of anti-social behaviour. Jim Gamble told us: "The Prevention of Harassment Act is bullying. The Prevention of Harassment Act is trolling ... We need to ensure that the laws as they exist, when they can be applied, are applied."[130] Any changes to legislation, including consolidation of current laws, which clarify the status of bullying, whether off-line or online, would be welcome. At the same time, much could be achieved by the timely introduction of improved guidance on the interpretation of existing laws.


98. On Twitter, users "agree" to obey local laws. Twitter's rules and terms of service "clearly state that the Twitter service may not be used for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content."[131] A question that arises is how more could be done by Twitter and other social media providers to assist in compliance with the law.

99. Facebook's detailed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities ("SRR") describes the content and behaviour that is and is not permitted on its service. With respect to safety, the SRR specifically prohibits the following types of behaviours:

·  Bullying, intimidating, or harassing any user.

·  Posting content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

·  Using Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.[132]

100. Both Facebook and Twitter have sensible terms and conditions attaching to the use of their services. However, these should be made much clearer, explicit and visible. People who might be tempted to misuse social media need to be left in no doubt that abuses online are just as unacceptable as similar misbehaviour face-to-face.

101. Facebook encourages people to report content that they believe violates their terms. "Report" buttons are "on every piece of content on our site." "When we receive a report, we have a dedicated team of professionals that investigate the piece of content in question. If the content in question is found to violate our terms, we remove it. If it does not violate our terms, then we do not remove it. We also take action, such as disabling entire accounts (eg of trolls) or unpublishing Pages, if deemed necessary."[133] Reports are handled by the User Operations team comprising hundreds of employees located in India, Ireland and the USA. The User Operations team is separated into four specific teams covering safety, hate and harassment, access and abusive content.

102. Facebook is aware that many under-13s are falsifying their ages to open accounts, in violation of the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Often parents assist them in doing so, something that Facebook's Simon Milner has reportedly[134] likened to allowing younger children to view Harry Potter video works (some of which have a '12' certificate). Sinéad McSweeney of Twitter told us: "We do not collect age information on sign-up. I think Twitter has established a reputation in the area of privacy. We minimise the amount of information that we require from users to sign up so we do not collect age or gender or other details about our users. Where it comes to our attention that somebody under the age of 13 is using the platform, their accounts are removed."[135] She went on to imply that a child under 13 would either have to be aware of this age rule, or read about it in Twitter's privacy policy.[136]

103. Claire Lilley of the NSPCC suggested: "Some of these sites need more human moderators to look for the fake accounts. That is one part of it, but they also have very sophisticated algorithms where they look at what language people are using, what sites they are visiting and what they are talking about online. They can tell with quite a degree of sophistication a lot about the individuals. Twitter, for example, has a minimum age of 13, but when you sign up to Twitter, you do not have to put in your date of birth. There is nothing to stop you. Twitter would say that what it does is to look at its algorithms to spot the children who are under 13 and therefore potentially on a site that is aimed at an older audience and containing information, posts and so on that are not suitable for their age. Its argument is that it uses very sophisticated algorithms, so I think there is a lot more that the sites could do."[137]

104. Twitter's age-verification process could at best be described as algorithmic and reactive; non-existent might be a more accurate description. Given that Facebook and Twitter are aware of the extent to which their services are accessed by younger children, we expect them to pay greater attention to factoring this into the services provided, the content allowed and the access to both. The same applies to other social media companies in a similar position.

105. BeatBullying told us that is the only e-mentoring and social networking site to be endorsed by CEOP. "We strongly believe that our approach to online safety must be adopted by all internet providers if children and young people are to be safe online."[138] This website checks all content prior to it being uploaded. As a general policy, Twitter told us that they do not mediate content. However, there are some limitations on the type of content that can be published with Twitter. These limitations include prohibitions on the posting of other people's private or confidential information, impersonation of others in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others, the posting of direct, specific threats of violence against others, and trademark and copyright infringement.[139] Twitter told us that users can mark their own tweets as sensitive which by default means a warning message is posted to anyone wishing to view these. This is a good reminder that self-restraint and self-regulation are crucial aspects of any enforcement regime in the online world.

106. In spite of reassuring words from Facebook and Twitter, it is clear that these platforms, in common with other social media providers, could do far more to signal the unacceptability of abuse and to stamp it out when it arises.

107. Offensive communications via social media that do not cross the threshold into criminal behaviour should, the Government expects, be dealt with expeditiously by the social media companies.[140] We agree. Social media providers should follow the examples of Facebook and Twitter in having appropriate terms and conditions. We believe there is significant scope for such providers—including Facebook and Twitter—to enforce such conditions with greater robustness.


108. A service for reporting all hate crimes online was launched by the police in April 2011. The website, called True Vision, is supported by all forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and can be accessed at All reports of incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK previously reported to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) should now be reported directly to True Vision. True Vision takes reports about: racist or religious hate crime; homophobic and transphobic hate crime; disability hate crime; bullying and harassment; domestic abuse. The National Centre for Cyberstalking Research commented: "The True Vision initiative for hate crime reporting is an excellent example of a simple and transparent reporting mechanism, but it needs to be more widely publicised."[141]

109. Social media providers generally offer reporting mechanisms, with varying degrees of user-friendliness and degree of follow-up. In serious cases, the access providers will also get involved. TalkTalk told us that they investigate any abusive or threatening comments posted on sites by their customers when provided with the log information that supports the complaint. In severe cases, relevant data will be disclosed to the third party solicitor, on receipt of a fully sealed court order from a UK court.[142]

110. As noted above, Facebook told us about their 'report' buttons. Twitter also told us that they have now introduced a similar reporting facility. Twitter said that reports that are flagged for threats, harassment or self-harm are reviewed manually. Twitter advises users to report illegal content, such as threats, to local law enforcement and refers to working closely with the police in the UK.[143] Stella Creasy MP—who has herself been subject to bullying and threats via social media—argued for the introduction of an "online panic button system" to alert sites like Twitter to an emerging problem.[144] She told us how she had been subjected to graphic threats and harassment on Twitter over the course of two weeks.[145] Even this was "just a fraction" of what had been endured by Caroline Criado-Perez who had been receiving 50 rape threats an hour. These threats evidently started for no reason other than Ms Criado-Perez's successful campaign to keep female representation on English bank notes. In January, two people were jailed for their roles in the abuse to which Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected.[146] Another individual has recently been charged with sending malicious communications to Stella Creasy MP.[147] All were charged under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

111. The NSPCC have suggested that providers of social media services should provide a range of options for users to report material, with extra support for younger users. They add that default privacy settings should be the highest possible and there should be adequate use of human moderators.[148] Claire Lilley of the NSPCC told us that, even if children report bullying to social networking sites, "they often feel like nothing is being done as a result of that and that no action is being taken, so children, when it is happening to them, [are] feeling extreme vulnerability and humiliation, and a sense of helplessness."[149] These comments were borne out by one of the teenage girls we talked to in January who told us that, with Facebook, it was hard to get bullying material taken down or blocked; when it was eventually removed, the damage had already been done. Twitter continues to be criticised for not doing enough to combat abusive and threatening behaviour online,[150] even in the wake of the limited and tardy corrective action it took following last year's case involving Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy MP.[151]

112. Anthony Smythe of BeatBullying said:

    I would like more transparency of the websites to hear from the big websites about how many cases of cyber-bullying are reported to them each year. What did they do about them? How quickly did they respond to those cases? What support and help did they offer? It is about having a bit more accountability. They will say that they probably do that, and if you spend ?ve hours on the internet, you might ?nd that information annexed somewhere. I would like that information signposted on their main websites so that parents and young people can have access and understand the website that they are using.[152]

113. Stella Creasy MP told us: "One of the other things I have asked the companies to do is publish their data about the numbers of reports of abuse they get and the numbers of the concerns so we can get a question of scale."[153]

114. Social media providers should offer a range of prominently displayed options for, and routes to, reporting harmful content and communications. They need to act on these reports much more quickly and effectively, keeping the complainant and—where appropriate—the subject of the complaints informed of outcomes and actions.

115. Ofcom should monitor and report on complaints it receives, perhaps via an improved ParentPort, regarding the speed and effectiveness of response to complaints by different social media providers.

Advice and support

116. Anthony Smythe of BeatBullying told us: "What is the greatest concern for children and young people—and now for adults—is the feeling that they are helpless and are hopeless in terms of getting advice and support. They do not know where to go to."[154] BeatBullying develops these points in their written evidence:

    Everyone involved with children's and young people's use of the internet—parents, schools, service providers, organisations and children themselves—has a shared responsibility for online safety. That is why in April 2013 BeatBullying launched a campaign for better anti-bullying protections called Ayden's Law. The campaign calls for a national strategy to tackle cyberbullying and would set out how the voluntary and community sector, parents and schools would be equipped to (a) protect the children in their care from harm online and (b) educate and equip children about internet safety and responsible digital citizenship so that they understand the issues for themselves.

    Any approach to online safety must ultimately be about shaping attitudes and changing behaviors as much as it is about teaching techniques for staying safe or for anything else.[155]

117. Claire Lilley said: "I would say that what bullying on social media comes down to is about behaviour. We can wave the long arm of the law at children, but what we need to do is to educate them about the impact of the behaviour in which they are engaging on people who are at the receiving end of it. We need to do much more to educate them to build their resilience, both when they are on the receiving end, but also to build their empathy and their sense of respect for other children."[156]

118. The Home Office told us that they undertake to "work with DCMS to ensure we are linked into initiatives such as Safer Internet Centre and Get Safe Online, which provide internet safety information and advice alongside a wealth of internet safety resources for schools and information for parents and children."[157]

119. Social media companies could, and in some cases do, provide resources and funding for educational initiatives. For example, Simon Milner of Facebook, referred to support given to the South West Grid for Learning which is "particularly helpful"[158] for schools and teachers. He also indicated that a request for funds would be listened to "with a very open mind."[159] We also heard evidence from the Government, Facebook and Twitter of the value of the helpline operated by the UK Safer Internet Centre, which operates on minimum and time-limited funding from the European Union. We believe it is in the interests of social media platforms, if they wish to avoid a more regulatory approach, to put their money where their mouths are and provide more funding for the valuable work being done on internet safety by voluntary organisations and charities.

120. A good deal of advice on the safe use of social media is available already. This should be signposted more clearly for teachers, who are likely to be in the front line when it comes to dealing with bullying both in the playground and in the online world.


121. The cloak of anonymity is a useful one for a dissident or free-thinker to wear; but it can also mask the bully and the criminal. Evidence from Dr Claire Hardaker, a Lecturer in Corpus Linguistics, identifies anonymity as one of the factors that can lead to harmful behaviour online (others include detachment and entertainment). She notes: "the internet offers a perceived anonymity that has no real parallel offline, and this appearance of invisibility encourages the user to feel that they can do unpleasant things with a highly reduced risk of suffering any consequences."[160] She goes on to question the feasibility of removing anonymity:

    In a nutshell, this is borderline impossible, if only because it is unenforceable, and unworkable. Even if all countries agree to legally mandating online identity disclosure (unlikely) the costs of setting up, administrating, and then enforcing it would be staggering. Further, we need only consider the risks inherent in having a child's name, age, location, etc. available online to realise that online identity disclosure would actually create more dangers than anonymity currently averts.[161]

122. These views appear at odds with those of John Carr of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. Referring to the "abuse of anonymity" he emphasised the importance of being able to trace individuals; this would require social media providers to take greater steps to verify the identity of their account holders.[162] He said: "So the requirement on internet service providers would be to verify that the individual who has just signed up with them is not in fact a dog, but an actual human being with an actual and verified address where they can be reached. That alone would act as a major brake on a lot of the bad behaviour."[163]

123. The Open Rights Group told us: "It is too easy to assume that tackling anonymity online is a simple solution to abusiveness." The Group added:

    In fact, people are usually not truly 'anonymous' when they are online. People leave all sorts of information that can identify them. It is sometimes possible to use this information to identify somebody with varying levels of confidence—even if the person posts messages as an 'anonymous' or 'pseudonymous' user. For example an ISP may try to 'match' an IP address with one of their subscribers. There are various legal powers that in some circumstance, require Internet companies to disclose this data, and which permit the use of it in various contexts for the purposes of trying to identify a user.[164]

124. Nicholas Lansman of the ISPA said: "People can attempt to hide themselves online, but there are technical ways in which they can be discovered."[165] Claire Perry MP referred to a particularly tragic case when she told us: "I was encouraged with—having spent a lot of time with Hanna Smith's father, who was one of the young women who did indeed commit suicide—that company did set up a facility where users could choose to be anonymous, but you would know if the user was anonymous when you were exchanging information with them."[166]

125. Anonymity is not just a cloak for cowards who bully; it is used by others to disguise their criminal activities. In January of this year, the National Crime Agency announced that 17 Britons had already been arrested as a result of Operation Endeavour, spanning 14 countries. This particular case involved the live streaming of child abuse in the Philippines for viewing across the world. The prevalence of child abuse images on the internet and the associated activities of paedophiles provide just one of the starkest of reminders that keeping children safe off-line includes keeping them safe online too.

119   Ev 111 Back

120   Trolling: the practice of posting deliberately inflammatory material. Back

121   Ev 75 Back

122   Q 5 Back

123   Ev 89 Back

124   Ev 89 Back

125   Ev 92 Back

126   Ev 109 Back

127   Ev 109-110 Back

128   Ev 110 Back

129   Ev 76 Back

130   Q 116 Back

131   Ev 92 Back

132   Ev 89 Back

133   Ev 89 Back

134   Facebook admits it is powerless to stop young users setting up profiles, Guardian, 23 January 2013 Back

135   Q 166 Back

136   Q 169 Back

137   Q 22 Back

138   Ev 73 Back

139   Ev 92 Back

140   Ev 111 Back

141   Ev w144 Back

142   Ev 85 Back

143   Ev 93 Back

144   Q 70 Back

145   Q 61 Back

146   "Two jailed for Twitter abuse of feminist campaigner", Guardian, 24 January 2014 Back

147   "Man charged over MP Stella Creasy tweets", BBC News, 23 January 2014 Back

148   Ev 73 Back

149   Q 10 Back

150   "Ex-footballer Collymore accuses Twitter over abusive messages", BBC News, 22 January 2014 Back

151   Q 61 Back

152   Q 14 Back

153   Q 66 Back

154   Q 5 Back

155   Ev 73 Back

156   Q 12 Back

157   Ev 107 Back

158   Q 138 Back

159   Q 150 Back

160   Ev w2 Back

161   Ev w4 Back

162   Qq 22-26 Back

163   Q 24 Back

164   Ev w126 Back

165   Q 110

@ 166  FOOTNOTE3@ 165">Back


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© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 19 March 2014