COMPLAINTS of crimes involving Facebook and Twitter have increased by 780 per cent in four years, resulting in around 650 people being charged last year, police figures show.
The phenomenon of social networking crime was comparatively minor in 2008 with 556 reports made to police, according to the statistics released by 29 police forces in Scotland, England and Wales under the Freedom of Information Act.
But this year, 4,908 offences in which the two sites were a factor were reported.
Chief Constable Andy Trotter, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ chair of communications, said the figures demonstrate a new challenge.
He said it was important that forces prioritised social networking crimes which caused genuine harm, rather than attempting to curb freedom of expression.
“It is a new world for all and we could end up in a situation where each constabulary needs a dedicated Twitter squad. In my opinion that would not be a good use of resources in difficult financial times.
“We need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgment.
“But equally, there are many offences involving social media such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm.”
Police forces were asked to provide the number of crime reports in which either Facebook or Twitter was a key factor. This included offences committed on the sites, such as posting abusive messages, and those which were provoked by postings, including physical attacks.
A total of 653 people faced criminal charges over the allegations this year, according to the forces which responded.
Some forces also released a detailed breakdown of crime reports. This showed a wide variety of offences, with harassment and menacing messages among the most common. For example, Tayside Police received 66 reports involving the sites this year, and 44 of these involved sending obscene or menacing messages.
In Merseyside, 21 of the 76 crimes reported this year involved harassment. There were also numerous sexual offences including grooming, complaints of stalking, allegations of racially aggravated conduct and reports of fraud.
Mr Trotter said offences could be roughly divided between crimes which would have been committed, albeit in a different way, before the emergence of social media, and those which exist because of the online platform.
“There is an issue of public expectation,” he said.
“We have to respect free speech and cannot have police forces responding simply because of public outcry.
“In many ways, online communities can be self-regulating and good at weeding out unacceptable behaviour.”
He welcomed recent guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service, saying it set a “high threshold” for police intervention and represented a first step towards a better co-ordinated approach.
Director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, announced the new guidelines on how people who post offensive messages on Facebook and Twitter should be dealt with. The guidance is expected to result in fewer criminal charges.
The May 2010 conviction of Paul Chambers for joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire is a well-known case.
His conviction for sending a “menacing” tweet drew widespread condemnation and was eventually quashed on appeal in the High Court in July.