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WATCH: No Roles For Trolls – Dr Holly Powell-Jones on the importance of raising awareness of online media laws


By Federica Stefani

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Dr Holly Powell-Jonesis a researcher and educator specialising in online meda law and ethics.
Dr Holly Powell-Jonesis a researcher and educator specialising in online meda law and ethics.

Despite the threats that trolling and online abuse present to people’s mental health, they are still too often downplayed and not considered a serious issue – as it was highlighted in previous conversations of our campaign.

This can also be tied to the perception many have that everything on the internet and on social media is allowed, or at least that rules are much more lax in an online environment.

For our last interview of this campaign, we spoke to online media law expert and educator Dr Holly Powell-Jones about certain legal aspects of online behaviour (you can watch the full interview below).

"The general perception is that there aren’t any laws online, and sometimes that is exacerbated by public figures and people referring to it as a 'wild west'," she said.

"People often think there aren’t any laws, but actually there are lots, and if you don’t know about them you can get quite in serious criminal trouble.

"There is also a common misconception that laws that apply to journalists and the media are not the same that apply to individuals, but that is a myth: the reality is that we tend to have laws around behaviours – such as what kinds of material you can or can’t publish or distribute – so actually, it is the same laws and rules that apply to citizens within a jurisdiction regardless of their jobs. We have a duty as citizens to be aware of media law whether you are a journalist or not."

She suggested visiting the Crown Prosecution Service's website as a good reference to look at what laws apply to social media.

Another widespread misunderstanding revolves around freedom of speech, according to Dr Powell-Jones: "Often people think of freedom of expression as a blanket right for them to feel free to say whatever they want without consequences, but that is actually not what the legislation says at all.

"Part two of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 focuses on duties and responsibilities that come with freedom of expression, and there is a list of lawful justifications for limitations on freedom of expressions – for all sorts of reasons, whether that’s national security or justice, protecting people’s reputation or privacy.

"There’s always got to be a balance between freedom of speech as a right and not infringing upon other people’s rights – particularly when it comes to things like hate speech online. It’s really important that we explain that to people."

The consequences of online abuse can have serious repercussions on our society.

"Groups of people are disproportionately victimised on social media compared to others," she said.

"We know, for instance, that journalists are typically more targeted because of their profession, as well as women, people of colour, people who are openly gay or trans, Muslim or Jewish online, and so on. This can mean that those people are silenced or excluded from participation in public discourse, and that can be very scary.

"The risk is that we are going to infringe on our own rights to access information about the world, to have a public discourse. If certain areas of journalism are silenced out, we are not going to hear from those people and that is going to be very bad for society in general besides for that individual."

Talking about how to deal with online trolling, Dr Powell-Jones believes that prevention is fundamental.

She said: "Wherever you can, preparing for and preventing online abuse is always preferable. Anything from basic digital security to make sure your privacy is protected, to getting support from your boss and making sure your workplace has a plan and policies in place for dealing with those issues is very important.

"It’s important that you get support as soon as possible because it can get really nasty, and a lot of people will think that these are just words online, but it’s essential to know that it has very serious impacts on people’s health.

"Don’t be afraid to report material and users to the police – if it reaches a point where it has passed a criminal threshold, don’t be afraid to report it. If you are a victim of crime you are entitled to that support.

"If you have material that you think should be reported to the police, it's also important that you keep a record of it wherever possible. Organisations like Glitch UK provide a template and guidance on how to gather evidence.

"However, if you feel that gathering evidence is difficult for you, you can outsource it to a person you trust to help you go through those messages.

"The pandemic has changed how all of us are interacting socially, and this has really re-focused people’s minds on the importance of digital social interaction and how we can do that in a way that is positive and inclusive for everyone – so I think that has moved the conversation forward and has put it at the front and centre of some of these debates now."

You can find out more about Dr Holly Powell-Jones' work on her website, onlinemedialawuk.com

  • Dr Holly Powell Jones is not a lawyer and her comments in this article do not constitute legal advice.

Other resources:

Index on Censorship guide to free speech

Gov UK - Quick overview of contempt of court

“Online abuse: teenagers might not report it because they often don’t see it as a problem” (LSE blog by Dr Powell-Jones)

Find all our No Roles For Trolls stories and video interviews here.


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