Twitter is to train prosecutors in England and Wales to better fight online abuse, as the internet is increasingly used as a weapon by perpetrators of domestic abuse, rape and sexual violence against women.
The Crown Prosecution Service said the US-based social network would help it contend with criminal activity such as using the internet to post explicit images of former partners – an offence under the new revenge pornography laws – and the monitoring and stalking of victims using spyware and GPS.
Jenny Hopkins, chief crown prosecutor and the CPS lead on violence against women, told the Guardian that Twitter experts were being brought in to train prosecutors and update their skills and knowledge. “Social media is increasingly being used as a tool against women and I think it is really positive that Twitter is going to be training our lawyers in the months ahead,” Hopkins said.
Police and prosecutors are also seeing an increasing number of cases in which perpetrators use social media to facilitate crimes against women, including rape, blackmail, grooming, harassment and sexual violence.
Jason Lawrance, 50, faces a lengthy jail sentence on Thursday after being found guilty at Derby crown court of raping five women that he had met on dating website Match.com. It is these kinds of cases that are worrying prosecutors.
The CPS is publishing new guidelines on prosecuting new and emerging social media crimes. For the first time, violence against women and girls has been highlighted as an area in which social media is being used by perpetrators. The guidelines are now out to public consultation for six weeks.
Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, said the use of multiple fake profiles by individuals on social media could, depending on the context, be a criminal offence. She added that new ways of targeting and abusing individuals online were constantly emerging and it was vital that prosecutors looked at the whole picture – both on and offline – when examining evidence.
“Worryingly, we have seen an increase in the use of cyber-enabled crime in cases related to violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse,” Saunders said. “Offenders can mistakenly think that, by using false online profiles and creating websites under a false name, their offences are untraceable. Thankfully, this is not the case and an online footprint will be left by the offender.”
According to a 2015 UN report, 18% of women in the EU have experienced a form of cyber-violence – a definition covering hacking, harassment, surveillance and revenge porn – since they were 15, which is equivalent to 32 million women.
Nick Pickles, Twitter’s head of UK public policy, said he hoped that by working with the CPS to give prosecutors an in-depth understanding of the social network and the rapid development of digital communication platforms, UK citizens would be better protected.
Twitter has long tried to curb sexist and other forms of abuse on its site. A year ago, its chief executive at the time, Dick Costolo, conceded that Twitter “sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls”, after an employee highlighted to him an article in the Guardian by columnist Lindy West about her experience with trolls on social media.
The new CPS guidelines highlight the changing landscape in which violence against women is being perpetrated. “Online activity is used to humiliate, control and threaten victims, as well as to plan and orchestrate acts of violence,” the document says.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said use of the internet to enact domestic violence was frequently reported to the charity by victims. “These crimes may be perpetrated in the virtual world, but the fear and long-term damage they cause is all too real. A Women’s Aid survey last year found that for almost a third of women, threats made online … were then carried out,” she said.
Laura Higgins, founder of the Revenge Porn Helpline, said that in the year to February 2016, her organisation had received calls from 3,450 people of whom explicit images had been posted online. Seventy-nine per cent of the victims were women and 13 per cent of cases involved the type of blackmail sometimes known as “sextortion”.
In response to the conviction of Lawrance, a Match.com spokesman said the dating site had the “most heartfelt concern” for the victims, adding that “the safety of our members is our highest priority”.
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