When does social media activity lead to criminal prosecutions? 

Posting to social media sites in the privacy of your own home can have ramifications in your workplace and other aspects of your day to day life. Some types of posts to social media sites can even put you at risk of being charged with a criminal offence!  The Australian Communication and Media Authority provides a useful run-down of cases where Australians have been prosecuted as a result of their activity on social media sites like Facebook.

A young man in South Australia was prosecuted for criminal defamation after he posted hateful comments about a police officer.  The court found his comments acted as inciting acts of violence against a person in authority.  Lots of people “vent” on Facebook and similar sites, but if you post goes so far as to incite hatred or violence, you could wind up in Court.  Threatening people with violence online or offline is a criminal offence.  Never post comments encouraging violence against individuals, groups of people or organisations.  The general rule, if you wouldn’t say it in person; then don’t say it online.

Posting horrifically offensive messages on tribute sites (known as “trolling”) can also lead to criminal charges.  The offence is known as “using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence”.  Often trolling is done anonymously, however in the case of R v Hampson [2011] QCA132 the QPS Computer Crime Team were able to identify and locate the person who had posted the offensive messages to a Facebook tribute page.  Hampson received a sentence of 3 years to be released after 12 months at first instance in the District Court.  On appeal, the Court of Appeal described the conduct as “ghoulish, disgusting and depraved” and although the sentence was reduced to 2 years without release after 8 months, imprisonment was the appropriate penalty.

Other cases have involved people positing images of themselves engaged in criminal activity to sites such as YouTube and those images have been used by police to commence charges against the person depicted.  A Victorian woman encouraged her teenage daughter and her friends to physically assault another teenage girl while she filmed the attack.  The footage was posted on MySpace.  She was charged with affray and causing serious injury by aiding and abetting teen attackers.

A man who placed a webcam on the dashboard of his car to capture his ‘burnouts’ on a suburban road was charged with reckless driving after he posted the film on Facebook.  In these cases, posting the material to the internet was sufficient to ground the prosecution case against the poster!