Published Wednesday, 13 February 2013
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Policing social media
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Social media is a global phenomenon, with over a billion active monthly users on Facebook and 200 million active users on Twitter at the end of last year.
Millions of posts - most of which remain unregulated - are shared every second on the world's biggest social networks.
In 2011, a man from Londonderry was convicted of using Facebook to post a threatening message against local DUP MP Gregory Campbell.
It was understood to be the first conviction of its kind in the UK.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight again following the recent dispute over the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
Many of the loyalist flag protests were organised online.
Last month Facebook closed down protest pages carrying sectarian and threatening comments following a ruling at Belfast High Court - but within seconds new pages can be created.
Social media sites are littered with libel and threats - hard to police and even harder to prosecute.
The problem is often identifying who is behind what is being said.
Two years ago 90% of our cases were against the broadcast and print media; now 60% of our cases are against online publishers. The trend will follow the expansion of the World Wide Web.
Media lawyer Paul Tweed
Solicitor Olivia O'Kane, from the law firm Carson McDowell, said: "The most difficult thing can be identifying the online user.
"Recently there was a civil case involving an unidentified user on Facebook who posted serious libels about two company directors and an employee, and the court awarded £35,000 in compensation against the unidentified user.
"That means that when claimants find the identity of the user they can enforce that judgement - so where people post anonymously online, that is where it becomes a bit more complex."
Social media remains a grey area which authorities are still trying to get a clearer picture on.
In a statement to UTV, the Public Prosecution Service confirmed it is considering whether a policy document should be produced in Northern Ireland to provide more clarity.
"I can confirm that the law in relation to potential offences committed through the misuse of social media will continue to be applied to every case received by PPS and each case will be decided on its own merits," a spokesperson said on Wednesday.
"The PPS is currently considering the issues surrounding the use of social media with a view to deciding whether a policy document is required to be produced in this jurisdiction."
Meanwhile, solicitors say they are continuing to get more and more cases involving social media in their in-trays.
Ms O'Kane continued: "The law is evolving to keep up with modern technology - and we're having to try and apply this new legal sphere in more and more cases."