People who dole out racist, sexist, or other hateful abuse online should now be punished “as seriously” as those who do it in person, according to new legal guidance handed to prosecutors in England and Wales.
The Crown Prosecution Service, in its updated guidance, said it was pushing for stiffer penalties “in recognition of the growth of hate crime … using social media.”
Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, wrote in The Guardian that, left unchecked, online abuse could result in similar violence to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville earlier this month.
She wrote: “When an ever greater amount of our time is spent online, it is only right that we do everything possible to ensure that people are protected from abuse that can now follow them everywhere via the screen of their smartphone or tablet.
“Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on a wall or tweeted into their living room, hateful abuse can have a devastating impact on victims.”
The guidance will likely result in more prosecutions for people posting abuse on networks like Twitter and Facebook, with harsher sentences. Last year, there were more than 15,000 hate crime prosecutions.
It might also encourage people to come forward: While hate crime is on the rise, many victims don’t report incidents to the police. After the UK voted to leave the EU, there was a spike in reported incidents against eastern Europeans, but Met police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said it was still “massively under-reported.”
Saunders noted that an “increasing amount” of hate crime is being perpetrated online.
The CPS said its new guidance sets out what prosecutors and victims can expect. It defines hate crime like this:
“Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.”
Online cases, it said, should be pursued “with the same robust and proactive approach” used for offline cases, and victims should be encouraged to report everything to the police.