CRIMES involving social networking websites are rocketing, new figures show.
In 2008, no complaints were made to Northumbria Police about abuse dished out on Facebook or Twitter.
But this year, 39 incidents have been reported, with 17 people being charged with offences.
The rise mirrors a growing trend nationally.
In the past 12 months, 650 people faced charges after 4,908 investigations.
That represents a 780 per cent jump on the 556 reported cases in 2008.
Some Sunderland AFC fans have shamed the club and city with racist abuse on Twitter.
In February, Peter Copeland, of Benridge Bank, West Rainton, admitted two offences under the Malicious Communication Act after a row with a Newcastle United supporter online.
The 29-year-old was given a four-month prison sentence – suspended for 18 months – for making a sick reference about Senegalese NUFC striker Demba Ba and another abusive comment about the number of black players at Sunderland’s Tyneside rivals.
Last month, a 21-year-old SAFC supporter was cautioned by Northumbria Police after Ex-England striker turned football pundit Stan Collymore flagged up racist abuse on Twitter.
Northumbria Police Detective Chief Inspector Ged Noble said: “We have seen an increase in reports of offences involving social media which is clearly linked to the huge increase in its use.
“We take all reports of offensive behaviour seriously, and where there is a genuine risk of harm or evidence of a criminal offence we will investigate.
“There is, however, a balance to be struck between prosecution and the rights of free speech even if the comments can be disagreeable.”
DCI Noble added: “Investigating reports of criminal behaviour on social network sites has its challenges, but we have staff who are trained in navigating these systems and identifying who the offenders are.
“New guidelines on dealing with people who post offensive messages using social media has just been released by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and we will continue to work closely with the Crown Prosecution Service to take action against those who cross the line from their right to free speech to committing criminal offences.”
The latest figures showed that Greater Manchester Police were the busiest this year, charging 115 people.
The Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on communications, Chief Constable Andy Trotter, said while officers are not trying to curb freedom of expression, they were eager to stamp out crimes that could cause “genuine harm”.
“It is a new world for all and we could end up in a situation where each constabulary needs a dedicated Twitter squad.
“In my opinion, that would not be a good use of resources in difficult financial times.
“We need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgment.
“But equally, there are many offences involving social media such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm. It is that higher end of offending which forces need to concentrate on.”
Mr Trotter said offences can be roughly divided between crimes which would have been committed, albeit in a different way, before the emergence of social media and those which exist because of the online platform.
“There is an issue of public expectation.
“We have to respect free speech and cannot have police forces responding simply because of public outcry.
“In many ways, online communities can be self-regulating and good at weeding out unacceptable behaviour.
“We need to find a way of distinguishing between that type of behaviour and that which requires police intervention.”