It is always best to report any harassment or threats received on social media to the police – even if the incident may not be a crime

Publication date 29.1.2020 10.19
News item

The police are frequently contacted about harassment and threats received on social media. Social media harassment is an unfortunate but relatively common phenomenon. Social media harassment can manifest as bullying, hate speech, sexual harassment and intentionally confusing and provocative behaviour, also known as trolling.

People should not hesitate to report social media harassment and, if necessary, contact various support-providing organisations. The police also urge people not to hesitate to report harassment to the social media platforms it has taken place on, as these platforms can only respond to incidents they are aware of. Reporting the profile of a harasser is an important first step in dealing with cases of social media harassment.

If you have been the target of social media harassment:

  • Immediately save any messages, images and other materials that are used to harass you.
  • Take a screen capture of the harasser’s profile. Save the potential web address of the harasser’s profile page. This makes it possible to trace the profile even if its user changes their personal information.
  • Record when and where the harassment or threat has taken place.
  • If the harassment takes place over a long period, you should also record your feelings in relation to it.
  • Report any content used in harassment and the harasser’s profile to the social media platform.
  • When reporting harassment to the police, please mention any evidence you have collected of the harassment.
  • If you feel the need to do so, please also contact support-providing organisations such as Victim Support Finland and Women’s Line.

Social media harassment is usually investigated as defamation, menace or dissemination of information violating personal privacy. Further possible offences are identity theft and harassing communications. Threats and harassment that have continued for an extended period of time can also be stalking if they cause fear or anxiety in the target. Typically, the aforementioned offences result in a fine.

With the exception of stalking, all the aforementioned offences are complainant offences. In general, the commencement of pre-trial investigations in the case of complainant offences requires a request for punishment issued by the complainant. If the complainant does not issue a request for punishment, a pre-trial investigation cannot be commenced.

“Stalking is a crime subject to public prosecution and does not require a request for punishment to be issued. In practice, however, it is difficult to find out about a stalking incident unless the victim reports is to the police,” Chief Superintendent Kimmo Ulkuniemi says.

Investigations into possible harassment can be suspended for a number of reasons, but it is still worth seeking help

After receiving a report of an offence, the police assess whether or not there is reason to suspect that an offence has occurred. If there is reason to suspect an offence, a pre-trial investigation must be commenced. However, there are a number of situations in which a pre-trial investigation is not commenced. If the offense is sufficiently minor that the prosecutor would need to make the decision not to prosecute, performing a pre-trial investigation is usually impractical. The pre-trial investigation can also be suspended following a proposal by the head investigator if sufficient evidence is not available or the suspect cannot be identified. The decision to suspend the pre-trial investigation is made by the prosecutor.

The actions of the accused may also not fulfil the definition of the offence. For example, a single inappropriate comment on social media may not fulfil the definition of defamation. In such a case, the head investigator can make the decision not to commence a pre-trial investigation because there is no cause to suspect that an offence has occurred. Conversely, if the harassing person has spread false information about the complainant, used terms of abuse that indicate contempt for the complainant or otherwise caused the complainant suffering with their actions, those actions may meet the definition of defamation.

“Sometimes, behaviour that is experienced as harassment is the expression of an opinion that falls under freedom of speech, even if the person targeted by that speech finds it offensive,” Detective Chief Inspector Markku Silen from the Helsinki Police Department says.

“Similarly, harsh or derogatory critique aimed at another person’s conduct, opinions or public actions is not necessarily a threat or an incident of social media harassment even if the person targeted finds it offensive,” Detective Chief Inspector Silen continues. The actions that fulfil the definition of defamation are purposefully limited to protect freedom of speech. Derogatory critique may be punishable as defamation if it clearly crosses the boundaries of what can be considered acceptable. In the end, it is a matter of contextual evaluation on a case-by-case basis.

Additionally, the prerequisites for a pre-trial investigation may not be fulfilled if there is insufficient concrete information available regarding the incident. For example, the reporting person’s own account alone may not be sufficient to act as evidence of defamation. Too much time may also have elapsed since the incident and evidence may no longer be available, or the social media platform in question may not relinquish the necessary evidence to the police.

“For these reasons, it is particularly important that targets save evidence of the harassment or threats they receive themselves,” Senior Detective Superintendent Ulkuniemi notes.

National Police Board News Press releases imported from old site