Online Hate Crimes to Be Taken Just as Seriously as Offline Offenses in England, Wales

Demonstrators gather with placards during a protest called by the 'Stand Up to Racism' group in Croydon, south London, on April 8, following the suspected hate crime attack on a 17-year-old Kurdish Iranian asylum-seeker. The teenager was badly beaten by a group of around 20 people while he was at a bus stop with two friends outside a pub in Croydon on March 31. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The internet has revolutionized the way humans interact with one another, adding another facet to communication that rivals face-to-face interaction for primacy in modern life. But it isn't all informative reading, pleasant banter and happy reunions with old friends. Social media and other websites have also provided new avenues for the expression of hate.

The Crown Prosecution Service will treat online hate crimes as seriously as offline offenses in England and Wales, it announced Monday. The CPS, which prosecutes criminal cases being investigated by police, will consider the impact online hate could have not only on the targeted victim, but also on the broader community.

"When an ever greater amount of our time is spent online, it is only right that we do everything possible to ensure that people are protected from abuse that can now follow them everywhere via the screen of their smartphone or tablet," Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, wrote in a piece for The Guardian published Sunday. "Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on a wall or tweeted into their living room, hateful abuse can have a devastating impact on victims."

Hate crimes are defined by the CPS and police as "any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person's disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender." As described in the CPS's new policy documents, they can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property. Some of these types of hate crimes can be conveyed online as well as in person.

The announcement comes just days after cars rammed into pedestrians in Barcelona and Cambril, Spain, and less than two weeks after a white nationalist rally turned violent and deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia. Saunders acknowledged those events, saying they may have felt distant and irrelevant to U.K. citizens, but "we should remember that there is a less visible frontline which is easily accessible to those in the U.K. who hold extreme views on race, religion, sexuality, gender and even disability. I refer to the online world where an increasing proportion of hate crime is now perpetrated."

Tracking Hate Crimes in the U.S.

In the United States, hate crimes are tracked imperfectly by the FBI, with data provided voluntarily, or not, by local law enforcement agencies. It reported, for example, only 5,850 hate crime incidents in 2015 from 1,742 out of the 14,997 participating law enforcement agencies. In other words, roughly 88 percent of agencies reported zero hate crimes. A 2013 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated nearly 260,000 nonfatal violent and property hate crime victimizations occurred in the U.S. each year from 2007 to 2011 (for comparison's sake, the FBI counted just 6,628 hate crime incidents in 2010 and 6,222 in 2011 ). Based on the definitions and breakdowns provided by the BJS, online incidents were not factored into even the much larger pool of incidents it estimated.

The Anti-Defamation League does not generally include social media incidents in its annual audit of anti-Semitism, but in a separate report tallied 2.6 million tweets sent from August 2015 to July 2016 that contained "language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech." In a toolkit on responding to cyberhate, the ADL explains that hate speech with no underlying criminal conduct cannot be prosecuted under hate crime laws. These laws, which differ by state, can generally only be used to prosecute hate on the Internet if cyber hate rises to the level of criminal conduct and a sentence for another offense can be enhanced.

The ADL, however, has long worked to better track and address online hate. It announced in March a Silicon Valley Center to monitor and fight cyber hate. It included in its testimony at the Judiciary Committee Hearing on Responses to Increase in Religious Hate Crimes a recommendation to explore "approaches to address cyberhate, such as studying the connection between online hate and bias-motivated violence as well as considering new, constitutionally sound means for legal redress."

The CPS's announcement was met with what Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore called "a torrent of loathing" on Twitter. "The anonymity of the digital world has been liberating in radical ways, but it has liberated some of the worst impulses," she wrote. "For perpetrators hate is indeed a bottomless cup with few consequences. Victims know only too well, though, that online hatred transmutes into actual violence."

Saunders seems to agree that expressions of hate online can grow into larger, more violent demonstrations. "People all over the world are questioning how those in positions of power can counter the kinds of extreme views that are increasingly being aired, and how societies might do more to prevent such opinions from gestating in the first place," Saunders wrote in her Guardian piece. "Hate crime of any form is not only damaging for individuals but also for society as a whole, where it sows seeds of division and intolerance," she added. "Left unchallenged, even low-level offending can subsequently fuel the kind of dangerous hostility that has been plastered across our media in recent days."