Handling abuse on social media

This section provides advice on handling intimidation and abuse online.

Two figures on podium making a speech, magenta colour background

With thanks to the Welsh LGA for the reproduction of their guide in the production of this section.

Key points

  • Keep a record of any abuse
  • Carefully consider how and whether to respond to inaccurate or defamatory social media comments
  • Report any abuse to the social media companies for its deletion or to raise concerns about an account
1. Introduction

Any intimidation or abuse on social medial is subject to all the same potential criminal prosecutions as other forms of intimidation, with the additional criminal offences relating specifically to electronic communications.  

You are best placed to determine whether a post or interaction is abusive or intimidating, and if you feel intimidated you can take action to report it.

Good digital citizenship encourages the labelling of abusive and inappropriate online material so that both the perpetrator and others viewing it can also know it is not acceptable. However, it does not necessarily follow that the police or courts will regard it as intimidatory behaviour in law as they have to apply their own ‘average person’ tests – also known as ‘reasonableness tests’ or the ‘Clapham omnibus’ test. 

Every situation will be different, and it will need a personal judgement about whether it is worthwhile to pursue the incident, ignore it or politely acknowledge.

2. Keep a record 

If you have received online abuse, even if you are not overly concerned or if you intend to ignore it, you should consider keeping a record should any incidents escalate in the future. You can simply ‘screen shot’, ‘clip’ or ‘snip’ tweets or posts on your phone, tablet or computer.

You may also decide to warn the perpetrator that you are keeping a record of all messages and may refer them to the appropriate authorities, which may stop them posting further comments or might encourage them to delete them.

3. Tackling abuse on social media

In any situation that arises on social media, you will need to decide whether you want to engage in a discussion or ignore it, and whether the communication is abusive, intimidatory or threatening.

When determining whether to engage or ignore, you’ll need to balance the risks and likely success of either approach in stopping the situation. Engaging in online discussion could diffuse it through the use of humour or similar, or could inflame the situation further. There is no right or wrong here. However, it is likely that the person posting has less of a following or public profile than you and by engaging you can increase their audience

If the communication is abusive, intimidatory or threatening, then keep a record of it (such as a screen shot). You can post that you find the communication abusive, intimidatory or threatening if you want to highlight the poor online behaviour, and report it to the social media platform and to the police. You can also make your council aware that you have been subjected to online abuse, intimidation or threats in your role as a councillor so they can keep a record or take action as well. If you think there are threats to your personal safety or security, you can ask for advice from the police.

It may be useful to refer to our section on the legislation applicable to harassment and abuse to see if the communication falls into any of the categories so you can describe it to the police in these terms.

Perhaps most distressing is when multiple users all send abusive messages in quick succession or at the same time. This can be overwhelming and the structure of Twitter in particular means that the more posts and retweets, the more others see it, and they can be encouraged to add to the abuse. It can escalate very quickly. There are sadly some who will willingly add to the abuse for their own amusement, even if they are unaware of the details. This is a difficult situation to handle, particularly if the information is being held by another user. If this occurs, you are advised to make a record of the abuse, inform the social media platform, your council and the police if any of the tweets make significant personal threats. You may wish to remove the original post if you can. Often these things burn themselves out very quickly and the perpetrators move onto the next trend or victim.     

If someone has posted some inaccurate information about you or the council, and if the information is defamatory (a false statement that could harm your reputation), again, the first step is to gather evidence. You may then want to contact the individual initially to request that the tweet or post be deleted; some individuals may have made a mistake without malice and will remove their post immediately. Depending on the nature of the tweet or post and the number of followers who may have viewed the tweet, you may wish to seek a correction and/or an apology. 

If this approach is unsuccessful or where a defamatory tweet or post causes serious concern or is part of a concerted campaign, in addition to informing your council, you may wish take legal advice and to issue a “notice and take−down” letter via your solicitor (assuming you are able to locate the perpetrator). Although you may not have the intention of proceeding further, the threat of legal action is often a powerful deterrent and can prompt a swift and successful resolution. 

If the tweet or post is a complaint about a council service, you can ask for contact details and pass the information to officers to follow−up on and inform the individual that this is the course of action you are taking. This may help defuse any tensions. 

4. Twitter: muting or blocking accounts

You may wish to unfollow, mute or even block a person or group who is persistently tweeting you or is being abusive or intimidatory. Guidance about to mute and block is available from Twitter, but in summary:

  • Muting allows you to remove an account’s tweets from your timeline but does not go as far as unfollowing or blocking the account. Muted accounts will not know that they have been muted and you can ‘unmute’ them at any time.
  • Blocking allows you to restrict specific accounts from contacting you, seeing your tweets or following you. Unlike muting, the perpetrators can find out that they have been ‘blocked’ and may accuse you of avoiding their scrutiny; this may be a small price to pay if their behaviour is checked and can be easily rebutted if necessary.
5. Twitter: reporting abuse

Twitter itself promotes ‘Rules’ encouraging constructive debate but it explicitly prohibits behaviour “…that crosses the line into abuse, including behaviour that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice”.

If tweets are so offensive that you believe they violate Twitter’s rules, you can report them to Twitter who may decide to take action. For further information about how to report ‘violations’ visit Twitter’s how to report violations page.

If someone sends threatening, abusive or offensive messages via any social networking site, they could be committing an offence. The most relevant offences are ‘harassment’ and ‘malicious communications’.

According to the police, harassment means a ‘course of conduct’ (i.e. two or more related occurrences) and the messages do not necessarily have to be violent in nature, but must be oppressive and need to have caused some alarm or distress.

An offence relating to malicious communications may be a single incident, but for an offence to have been committed, a message must be indecent, grossly offensive, obscene or threatening or menacing.

6. Facebook: tackling abuse

Facebook has slightly different ‘Community Standards’ to Twitter and alternative methods of dealing with complaints.
You are also more likely to encounter community or campaign groups or pages which facilitate scrutiny of you, fellow councillors or your local council on Facebook, and some will have been set up specifically with that purpose in mind. If these groups are not moderated effectively, they can provide a conduit for abuse and harassment.

Your council may have a policy on communicating and engaging with such groups, particularly if they have been set up to criticise the council, and you can take advice from the council’s communications officers. 

There is no right or wrong way with regards responding to a group or page which regularly criticises the council or councillors; some believe that it is beneficial to engage constructively, to explain, inform or signpost and hopefully improve awareness, understanding and support, whilst others are more reluctant as it will require emotional energy and time and the likelihood of successful engagement may be limited.

If you are concerned about comments or postings about you in a group or page, you can report the post to the group administrator.  If you are concerned about a group that is abusive and you think it has broken Facebook’s Community Standards, you can report the group to Facebook.

Although Facebook encourages respectful behaviour and takes action to protect ‘private individuals’ from bullying and harassment, it permits ‘open and critical discussion of people who are featured in the news or have a large public audience based on their profession or chosen activities’. Facebook does take action around ‘credible threats’ and ‘hate speech’.

There is a range of options for you to manage abuse or harassment on Facebook and full instructions are available on the Facebook help page:
•    if you want a post removed from Facebook, you can ask the person who posted it to remove it
•    if you don’t like a story that appears in your news feed, you can hide it
•    if you are not happy with a post you’re tagged in, you can remove the tag
•    you can leave a conversation at any time, though the other people in the conversation will be notified and you will no longer receive messages from the conversation
•    you can unfriend or block another user; they will no longer be able to tag you or see things you post on your timeline
•    If the post goes against Facebook’s Community Standards you can report it to Facebook.

7. Blogs: tackling abuse

Blogs are a quick and easy way for members of the public or councillors to set up mini−websites to discuss and air views on matters of interest.

Occasionally, blogs may take an interest in local, community matters and some have been set up specifically to scrutinise the local council or councillors. At other times, councillors may face negative comments on their own blog.

While scrutiny is a key part of local democracy and accountability, on occasions, some blogs may make unfair comments or untrue allegations or may include abusive or threatening commentary. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, there are no ‘community rules or standards’ to moderate or challenge such content.

Depending on the nature of the comments, councillors therefore have several choices:
•    ignore them altogether and hope that few people read and become aware of the comments
•    engage with the blogger and seek to assure, inform or correct the comments as appropriate. Bear in mind that this course of action may fuel and prolong the debate and abusive comments further
•    if you are concerned that the blogger is harassing you, threatening you, spreading malicious communications or is defaming or libelling you, you may wish to record any evidence (such as screen shots) and seek further legal advice or refer the matter to the police.

Finally, councillors and supporting officials have shared the following practical tips, based on their experience and best practices,  to prevent and handle online abuse:

  1. Set expectations – point people to your rules of engagement and apply these consistently.
  2. Lead by example – do not post comments that could be considered abusive, and avoid posting false or unverified information.
  3. Consider content – some content will be more controversial than others. Consider before posting how you will manage engagement with this, for example only engaging in comments on the policy itself or directing people to consultation documents.
  4. Defuse conflict – waiting to respond can take the heat out of situations, as can reframing your own language.
  5. Know when to step back  Remember you do not have to engage with abusive or threatening behaviour. You can set the record straight with factual information if you wish, but you can step away when you want to.
  6. Protect your privacy – set different passwords for different accounts, and do not post information that can allow people to identify your whereabouts outside of official council business.
  7. Understand privacy settings – there is a range of settings to help you manage who can see or comment on your posts.
  8. Get and give support – where you feel able, provide support to fellow councillors online, and reach out to colleagues and your council for support where needed.
  9. Record abuse – screenshot comments and keep a record of abusive or threatening communications.
  10. Report serious issues – if you feel unable to deal with online abuse yourself or have any concerns about your safety, report this to your council or the police.

With thanks to the Welsh LGA for the reproduction of their guide in the development of this section.