Only four percent of online abuse recorded by the Metropolitan Police results in a suspect being charged, according to exclusive Freedom of Information data obtained by VICE.
While there were 3,685 cases reported to the Met in 2020 – an increase of 44 percent from 2,558 cases in 2019 – only 114 reported in a charge or summons, with the outcomes of 904 offences are still pending. Despite the surge in reports, the volume of prosecutions actually dropped by 48 percent compared to the previous year.
The vast majority of those who reported online abuse – defined in VICE’s request for information as death threats, cyberbullying, threats, sexual harassment, cyberstalking, emotional abuse, unsolicited sexual imagery and enticing violence or harm through online speech and comments – were women, with almost double the number of women going to the police than men.
In almost a third of cases, a suspect was identified, and despite the victim supporting police action, evidential difficulties prevented the case from being taken any further. In cases of online abuse, this is often due to the privacy laws of the platform hosting the abuse, and the abuser holding multiple accounts.
Author Saurav Dutt, 38, suffered online abuse for two years. Between 2015 and 2017, he was defamed by an individual who repeatedly attacked his character and his Hindu religion. Saurav was initially hopeful when he reported the harassment to the Met. Officers requested that he keep a record of the abuse, including screenshots and diaries.
This changed once Saurav’s abuser began changing their user name online and setting up multiple accounts. “Their interest dissipated once the perpetrator clearly changed accounts from which they posted,” Saurav tells VICE, “and the police never investigated these or their IP addresses.”
Instead, the Met advised Saurav to simply log off social media. He says that the abuse completely destroyed his confidence. “Slowly I drew inward, became insecure, cut off all online activity and stopped writing,” he says. “Writing is my only creative outlet, sometimes my salvation and knowing this person had cut this out of my life destroyed my mental health.
“I became paranoid that this person would turn up anywhere where I was pre-announced to be in person. I became a recluse and my online persona completely vanished." The abuse only stopped after he deleted his accounts and went offline for a year.
Saurav says that his experience has affected the comments he makes online, making him extremely cautious about the things he posts. “It's also made me wary of escalating matters where I feel I need to fight the stalker because technology is seemingly on their side and it's so easy for them to slip away in the shadows.”
Tara, 38, believes that the effects of online abuse need to be taken more seriously by both the police and the public. The business owner – who requested anonymity as she feared being named would open her up to more abuse – was the victim of an online harassment campaign after her company was restructured during the pandemic. She received the abuse via multiple platforms and it included trolling, defamation and even contacting events she was due to speak at asking them to cancel her contract.
At one point, the abuse became so intense that Tara began to feel suicidal. When she went to the Met, she says, “they gave a rubbish response. They had no knowledge, experience or compassion and had no idea how to deal with me.
“Everyday that passes is another day that someone is taking their life because of online abuse – the same thing that almost caused me to end my own life.”
When Tara later complained about the lack of support she received, the police were extremely apologetic. “The police force feel pretty helpless when it comes to online abuse and crime,” she adds.
Met Police told VICE that it was unable to comment further on Tara and Saurav’s cases without more specific information, but a spokesperson said of the FOI figures: “Officers will follow all available lines of enquiry to gather evidence and pursue a prosecution when a crime has been committed.
“Online offences can present more investigative challenges than offences committed offline, particularly with regard to securing the evidence to attribute responsibility to a particular individual.
“Where it has not been possible to secure sufficient evidence, and where no further realistic lines of enquiry are available, it may be necessary to close a crime.
“Should additional evidence become available following the closure of a crime, officers will determine whether there are opportunities for further investigation.”
Pheebs Jameson, 19, an activist from Bristol, says they aren’t surprised by the Met data. In June 2020, Pheebs – who uses “she” and “they” pronouns – set up The Speak Up Space, an online platform for people to come forward about their experiences of sexual violence and harassment.
During the pandemic, Pheebs was subjected to an increasing torrent of online harassment, including death threats, sexual assault threats, slander, misogyny and fatphobia.
At the end of 2020, they made an attempt on their life. “[A] depressive episode mixed with relentless, constant and vicious online abuse led to a very sudden suicide attempt,” Pheebs explains. Horrifically, the abuse only worsened after her attempt.
When Pheebs reported the harassment to their local police force, the officer assigned to their case said she knew nothing about social media. They were also told that screenshots would not stand up as evidence in court. Eventually, the case was filed pending more information coming to light.
“You already face the barrier of not being taken seriously and then when you finally report it you face these other barriers,” Pheebs says. “I think the Met figures show that many people just don't get through those barriers and nothing gets done.” Pheebs did not file a complaint against the force.
Avon and Somerset Police told VICE: “Our cyber team was involved in the investigation into suspected malicious communications offence(s) but based on the information available to us we have been unable to identify the suspect.
“Advice about keeping safe on the internet was provided to the victim by the officer in the case to help protect them in the future.”
The force also added that it was unacceptable for anyone to experience any kind of abuse and that victims should report any abuse to the police so they can investigate.
Saurav also points out the difficulty of avoiding the abuse online. “I took the most obvious options initially by muting, blocking, defending myself where possible,” he says. “However, once they anonymised their profiles and went 'dark' it was impossible to know what to do; it was like a moving target you couldn't see. Shielded by their anonymity, the stalking only became more mean-spirited.”
Many of the people that VICE spoke to say that the ease with which abusers can disappear online is part of the issue, especially as they know they will very rarely be tracked down – which in many cases only encourages them to continue offending.
Over 182,000 people have signed a parliamentary petition calling for verified ID as a prerequisite for setting up a social media account. Many campaigners feel this would prevent abusers from hiding behind multiple fake accounts and make them much easier to apprehend. But much like the debate around the proposals for compulsory voter ID, this would keep those who do not have any official documentation – or cannot afford it – from social media.
The victims interviewed by VICE are afraid that this problem will only escalate over time. In fact, as technology develops further, there will be more and more channels through which people can experience, and perpetrate, abuse.
In April, Instagram announced the introduction of a new tool designed to tackle the issue of abusers creating multiple accounts. In the announcement, the platform explained: “With this feature, whenever you decide to block someone on Instagram, you’ll have the option to both block their account and preemptively block new accounts that person may create.”
When asked if they had any advice for people suffering from online abuse, Pheebs says that the key thing is not to let others feel as if you’re overreacting. Most importantly, they add, if you’re able to voice it and speak about it, you should do it.
“You’re the one in control,” they tell VICE. “Do what feels right but know you are allowed to block them or report them – you are allowed to be angry.”