Online Trolling, Bullying and Harassment
The behaviour of social media users has grabbed attention over the last year with the #BeKind movement. Social media is an excellent resource for many. During the COVID19 pandemic, it has helped families and friends stay connected. It has also helped businesses to keep operating. However, social media has a dark side with online trolling, bullying and harassment having a lasting and distressing impact on individuals and businesses.
Until recently, there was no protection in law specifically for the victims of online trolling, bullying or harassment. A troll, bully or harasser could be found guilty of harassment before the criminal courts or found liable for defamation or breach of privacy in the civil courts. However, these remedies do not always offer satisfactory redress, particularly when nasty and unpleasant content does not quite constitute defamation.
A significant difficulty is the fact that most online trolling, bullying and harassment is carried out by anonymous accounts. A victim of anonymous abuse can seek a Norwich Pharmacal Order from the Courts compelling the social media platform to disclose the identity behind the anonymous account. Once the victim has secured the identity of the abuser, it is then open to them to pursue that person for compensation in the civil courts and/or report that person to An Garda Síochána for harassment. This is a very onerous and costly legal remedy for a victim with no guarantee that the costs will be recovered.
On 5th June 2020, Fastway Couriers obtained a Norwich Pharmacal Order against the social media platform, Twitter. The High Court ordered Twitter to disclose who is behind a parody account that was publishing allegedly abusive and defamatory content about Fastway.
In August 2020, a social media influencer secured orders against Facebook requiring it to provide her with information to identify the persons behind accounts which she claimed were trolling, defaming and stalking her online.
The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020
In December 2020, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020 was signed into law and brought significant change to the law in this area.
This new law has created new offences in relation to online and offline harassment and harmful communications. These include the following new offences carrying penalties on conviction of up to 7 years’ imprisonment:
- A person who distributes, publishes or threatens to distribute or publish an intimate image of another person without his/her consent and with intent to cause harm to, or being reckless as to whether or not harm is caused to, the other person will be guilty of an offence.
- A person who records, distributes or publishes an intimate image of another person without his/her consent will be guilty of an offence.
- A person who distributes, publishes or sends threatening or grossly offensive communication will be guilty of an offence.
The Act also provides for the anonymity of the victim and specifies additional penalties for those who distribute or publish information that may lead to the identification of the victim, with penalties on conviction of up to 3 years imprisonment.
The Act provides for liability for companies and directors where an offence has been committed with the consent or the wilful neglect of a director, manager, secretary or other officer of a body corporate or a person purporting to act in such capacity. This has the potential to expose an organisation or an employer to significant litigation in both the criminal courts and civil courts. It is really important for organisations and employers to update it’s internet and social media policies and ensure that they are effectively communicated to all employees.
There are special provisions where a child under the age of 17 years has committed an offence under the Act.
What can you do?
There are significant legal consequences for online trolls, bullies and harassers, both before the criminal courts and the civil courts. Mullany Walsh Maxwells has experience in pursuing social media platforms to disclose identities behind anonymous accounts responsible for online trolling, bullying and harassment.
If you have been the victim of online trolling, bullying and/or harassment, it is recommended that you take the following steps: –
- Record the URL links to the content and direct messages;
- Record the date and time of the published content and direct messages;
- Take a screen grab of the content and direct messages;
- Report the behaviour and social media account to the social media platform and An Garda Síochána;
- Speak to your GP if the content or direct messages are impacting your mental health; and
- Speak to a solicitor about your legal options for redress.
*Before acting or refraining from acting on anything in this guide, legal advice should be sought from a solicitor.
**In contentious cases, a solicitor may not charge fees as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.