Understanding social media abuse laws – a qualitative study of police officers’ knowledge of laws governing abuse aided by social media

Examining how neighbourhood constables currently understand the laws on social media abuse.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Dr Laura Higson-Bliss
Police region
West Midlands
Collaboration and partnership

The project is funded by The British and Irish Law Education Technology Association.

Level of research
Professional/work based
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

The purpose of this study is to examine how police officers (neighbourhood constables) currently understand the laws applicable to social media abuse.

Online abuse spans a range of behaviours and therefore, not all can be covered in this study. This project will therefore focus on three main areas:

  • cyber harassment/stalking
  • image-based abuse (revenge porn)
  • malicious/grossly offensive communications

The use of social media to harass, abuse and intimidate others has been a growing concern for societies across the globe. In recent years, horrific instances of online abuse have caught the attention of the public resulting in calls for this behaviour to be criminalised (Cresci, 2017).

In England and Wales, numerous laws exist to control the behaviours listed above, including online trolling. Yet, there seems to be some disconnect between the law and its enforcement. 

Much of the research into this area has focused on complainants of online abuse, rather than law enforcement. This study will therefore attempt to fill this knowledge gap and understand if there is in fact an issue with the law and how it is interpreted by neighbourhood constables, who are in most cases the first point of contact for those who wish to report online abuse. 

This project aims to answer the following research questions.

  1. Do police officers currently understand laws used to govern social media abuse? 
  2. Is the law adequate when it comes to social media abuse? 

The research will help gain a better understanding of the investigative process undertaken by officers when it comes to complaints of online abuse and in turn, increase the public’s confidence in the polices legitimacy to combat online abuse. 

Research methodology

The data collected will consist of both quantitative (personal data questionnaire) and qualitative data (interviews). 

Personal data collection questionnaire

The questionnaire will be completed by every participant who takes part in the study and will consist of only questions relevant to the project, including both written and tick box responses.

The questions will cover:

  • age
  • gender
  • job title (rank)
  • how long participants have been a neighbourhood constable
  • ethnicity
  • location

This data will be used to examine if there is a correlation between how an officer would deal with a complaint of online abuse and their characteristics. For instance, research undertaken by Bossler and Holt (2012; 2013) found that male and female constables had different opinions on how cybercrime should be treated.

Though not the primary aim of the research, this data will seek to address comments made in the wider literature that a stigma still exists with some officers when it comes to complaints of social media abuse (Holt and others, 2019). 

Semi-structured interview with vignettes

The data collected during the interview process will be verbal responses to 10 hypothetical case examples presented to each participant during the study. The data will be collected recorded and the resulting audio file transcribed at a later date. Once a transcript has been created, the audio recording will be destroyed.

Transcriptions will be analysed using a thematic analysis. To complete this aspect of the research, The researcher aims to recruit 20 to 30 neighbourhood constables. Ideally, officers will be represented from a range of backgrounds. The interview will last around 30 minutes.

Research participation

The researcher aims to conduct about 20 interviews with neighbourhood officers from one of the 43 police forces across England and Wales.

Due to the nature of the research, only police officers who are currently serving can take part in the study. Taking part in the study is entirely voluntary.

The interviews will take place on MS Teams and will last around 30 minutes. Each interview will be audio recorded and transcribed. 

If you would like to be involved in the research, please contact the researcher directly.

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