Social networking and the law

Not only could your angry status update or online rant hurt someone's feelings, it could even get you arrested. Know the laws around breaking social network rules before you hit 'send'.

boy with tablet

Your status may be illegal as well as funny

T/W This article includes references to rape.

Step away from the keyboard! That tweet you were just about to send might seem hilaaarrrious – but it might also be illegal and could potentially really hurt or offend someone.

You may have heard about young people ending up in court for breaking social network rules. Their crimes include:

  • Harassment i.e., you won’t leave someone alone.
  • Menacing behaviour i.e., you write something that may scare someone.
  • Threatening behaviour i.e., making someone believe you’re going to hurt them.
  • Grossly offensive comments i.e., saying outrageously nasty things about a sensitive issue, aka trolling.

So how do you use social media without breaking the law and hopefully without offending anyone? Here are some golden rules to follow.

Don’t be grossly offensive, particularly about sensitive topics

What does ‘grossly offensive’ mean though? And what counts as ‘sensitive’? The truth is no one really knows right now. While one person might get away with saying shocking things, another could end up in court when the law cracks down to make a point. This is why you need to be careful.

Going on recent evidence, if you’re commenting on a subject in the news, be careful – even if you’re only joking. Your dark humour may not be seen as funny. And, remember – on Twitter especially – your twisted joke could be seen by anyone.

If you’ve been upset by something you’ve seen, read our article on how to protect your mental health online.

How NOT to do it:
After school girl April Jones was abducted in Wales, 20-year-old Matthew Woods made a joke about it on Facebook. He was jailed for 12 weeks for his offensive comments, while 20-year-old Azhar Ahmed was given community service and a fine for criticising soldiers in Afghanistan on Facebook.

Don’t be a troll

Unfortunately, the online world is chock-a-block full of people calling other people lazy, stupid, ugly etc. This has been very normalised, but it can be hurtful and upsetting to those on the receiving end of it; in some cases it is also known as cyber bullying. Besides this, harassing someone online (known as ‘trolling’) is legally shady, too.

“It’s extremely easy for police to trace you,” says David Allen Green, legal journalist and lawyer. “You’re not anonymous online. If you’re causing trouble, Twitter or Facebook will hand your IP address over on request.”

So no matter how much someone is peeing you off – whether they’re famous, or someone at college you just can’t stand – stick to the age-old rule of, ‘If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it at all,’ even if your social media accounts don’t include your name and home address.

Remember that there is a person on the other end of your comments and imagine how they might feel when they read them.

How NOT to do it:
When Olympic diver Tom Daley received a stream of mean comments on Twitter from a 17-year-old, the police were at his house within hours.

Don’t joke about riots or terrorism (or anything ‘scary’ for that matter)

Remember that the law has no sense of humour and the ‘but it was only a joke’ rarely stands up in court. Irony doesn’t always translate in publishing, so if you write anything where someone might not get that it’s a joke, you could be in trouble.

The Communications Act 2003 says that anything published that is ‘menacing’ – and therefore likely to upset an average Joe – could be an offence.

How NOT to do it:
Paul Chambers went to legal hell and back after jokingly tweeting he would blow up an airport. And tough ‘incitement to riot’ sentences were doled out after the London riots of 2011.

Never name a rape victim. EVER.

Rape is an emotive and misunderstood crime. However – whatever your views – you should never, under any circumstances, publicly identify the victim. Not even if the defendants are found not guilty. Rape victims have the right to remain anonymous for their entire lifetime. The law exists to encourage rape victims to come forward and report what happened to them without fear of identification.

How NOT to do it
After a footballer was jailed for five years for raping a teenage girl, many of his team’s supporters named her on Twitter. They were promptly arrested and a couple have since been charged.

Am I really at risk of breaking the law online?

If you’re doing any of the things we’ve mentioned, then the answer is yes and this could have serious consequences.

“Just because you didn’t know the law, doesn’t mean the law will treat you any differently if you break it,” says David. “What people need to realise is that social media is not a safe place and getting a criminal record could destroy your future career.”

If you’re desperate to vent, leave it for one sleep and see if you’re still desperate the next morning. It’s more than likely you’ll have cooled down and may be able to see the potential problems of writing something angry or aggressive on your social media channels. If you still want to talk about it, you can get in touch with our team for free and confidential support.

Learn more about UK laws and what to do if you find yourself in trouble here.

Next Steps


Updated on 14-Dec-2022