It’s suggested that people are more likely to carry out online “hate crimes” because they believe they’re unlikely to be punished, and even if the perpetrators do face consequences, often the worst they can expect is a ban. But in the UK, prosecutors are cracking down on abusive social media users by treating their hate speech as seriously as face-to-face offenses.

Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, said the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will now address online hate crime “with the same robust and proactive approach used with offline offending.” The agency says it is making the change "in recognition of the growth of hate crime perpetrated using social media."

According to CPS guidelines, a hate crime can be used to describe a range of criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim's 'protected characteristics,’ which include disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

Writing in the Guardian, Saunders explained that “an increasing proportion of hate crime is now perpetrated” online, adding that while such actions can’t cause physical harm to victims, it can have “devastating effects.”

Even though the UK doesn’t have the same free speech rights as the US, Saunders assures people that she does not want to stifle freedom of expression, which she calls an important right in our society. She did add, however, that “left unchallenged, even low-level offending can subsequently fuel the kind of dangerous hostility that has been plastered across our media in recent days,” and referred directly to the incidents in Charlottesville and Barcelona.

UK prosecutors completed 15,442 hate crime cases between 2015-2016 - the highest number ever recorded. A large number of these saw the CPS request increased sentences.

“Hate crime can be perpetrated online or offline, or there can be a pattern of behavior that includes both,” the CPS said. “The internet and social media in particular have provided new platforms for offending behavior.”

What effect the new rules have on the numerous far-right UK Facebook and Twitter groups whose members regularly post racist comments remains to be seen.