Why homophobic hate crime has surged in England and Wales

The rate of homophobic hate crimes in the UK, including stalking and online harassment, has more than doubled over the past five years, with Kent police reporting a staggering 400% increase in reported cases.

Over this time, police forces in England and Wales recorded 11,600 crimes, a number which is likely to represent a fraction of the real figure of harassment incidents again gay and lesbian people.

The rise could partly be attributed to better reporting, but it does not take into account thousands of unreported online harassment cases. My experience as an active social medial lawyer for more than 20 years is that at least 80% of the homophobic crime which is committed online goes unreported and less than 5% of the reported crime is in fact followed up by the police.

Despite some campaigners attempt to attribute the increase to a rise in right-wing political expression on the internet, which surely plays some part, the increase in online hate crime over the past 5 years, is across the board and it affects  the public in general regardless of any particular sexual orientation or preference.

Saying this, the increasingly aggressive nature of the conversations that are happening on social media, tend to adversely affect all minority groups, as internet trolling is often organised by small groups of individuals who are not necessarily defined by any particular political affiliation but rather are driven by a general anarchistic tendencies, which the internet clearly embraces.

So to what extent the increase in homophobic crime can be attributed to the rise of the reporting?

With the increase in awareness of the need to tolerate and accept people for who they are, and with the increasing quality of education at school level, we see an better acknowledgement by victims of online homophobic crime when abuse and harassment are taking place. People better understand the fact that they are victims of homophobic crime than they did previously. The sorts of homophobic behaviour that would have been tolerated by victims 5 years ago, is no longer acceptable, which means victims of online homophobic crime are now answering back to their abusers and are no longer feeling shy when it comes to reporting incidents to the police.

As a result, we see an increase not only in the numbers of incident reported but also with their volume and intensity.

Sadly, the police is unable to cope with the volume of online homophobic crime reported and often police offices are lacking the necessary skills and training to investigate social media homophobic crime.

Part of the problem is the anonymous nature of internet and the fact that the majority of the social media companies are located in the USA where there is a greater emphasis on free speech. Social media companies therefore are reluctant to stop homophobic attacks partly because restricting free speech does not meet the culture and often the law in the USA.

So what needs to change?

We are getting closer to the time where the police will move much of its policing activities to the internet, not only in terms allowing people to report crime online but also in the sense that I mentioned in my book The Net is Closing, Birth of the E-police, where I envisaged police forces creating virtual police stations online, and are being able to respond quickly and effectively to online crime, including having the ability to enforce disclosure orders against social media companies as a matter of course.

Solicitor Yair Cohen speaks to BBC’s Anna Cookson
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