This is the sixth feature in our 2017 entrepreneur series, highlighting Online SOS, a platform that connects victims of harassment to resources and support.
“If you don’t return my calls, I’ll release your photos.” “You have no idea who you’re dealing with. I’ll find you.”
Everyday, victims of online harassment receive terrifying messages like these on their phones, social profiles, and in their inboxes. These invisible predators leave millions living in a constant state of fear. Until recently, online harassment has been dismissed as “trolling” – a few rude comments on a news article, or on Instagram perhaps. But in reality, online harassment is a severe problem that impacts 40% of Internet users.
Online harassment is much more than name calling or insults, and transcends the digital to the physical. Over 50 million Americans have experienced severe cases which include stalking, physical threats, and sexual harassment. This serves as a threat to anyone’s digital identity and personal well being, and intensifies in sectors like media, technology, and government. When individuals, whether in the public eye or not, are targeted online, they often self-censor and even abandon their online presences completely, which can have significant long-term implications.
Liz Lee, the Co-Founder of Online SOS, experienced this herself shortly after graduating from U Penn and moving to New York City to start her first job, working in finance. Liz was thrilled to be living on her own and working in NYC. It felt like real life was coming together for her. But soon enough everything came crashing down when someone began harassing Liz online. This escalated from online messaging, to stalking, to extortion, and eventually, real world threats. One day Liz returned home from work to find her apartment door had been kicked in by her stalker.
She was living in a state of paranoia and fear. She didn’t know where or who to turn to, and didn’t have any resources or support. Resources for victims of online harassment simply did not exist. So she did nothing, dealing with the issue alone, in silence.
Several years later, one of Liz’s close friends had a similar experience of online harassment. Hers also made the leap from the digital to physical, and had an even more harrowing ending: sexual assault. Liz couldn’t help but wonder how many more people would have to suffer emotional and physical harm, and even die at the hands of online harassment before someone did something about it.
Liz decided to stop waiting, and to take action. She left her job at Morgan Stanley and teamed up with her two co-founders, Samantha Silverberg, a mental health professional, and Simone Giacometti, a software engineer, who also have first hand experience with online harassment. Together, they built Online SOS, a platform that connects victims of online harassment to resources for reporting these incidents, and professional support.
Online SOS provides immediate help and guidance to anyone experiencing online harassment. Through their website, individuals can seek real-time assistance from Online SOS’s Facebook messenger chat bot, which leads users through properly documenting the incident. This report can then be shared with police or the platform in which the harassment occurred. Individuals can also conduct a free online assessment, in which they provide the details of the harassment they are experiencing. Online SOS then reviews this information and follows up with their recommendations for next steps and support. In severe cases, Online SOS provides direct one-on-one support to victims through licensed mental health professionals.
“I feel like we have a lot of plans in place for different scenarios and this makes me feel safe…I really feel a sense of validation I didn’t have before.”
Online SOS’s two-prong strategy leverages both tech and human interventions to support victims of harassment. Early users are discovering a sense of empowerment by reporting incidents via the Online SOS chatbot, “It feel good to just write this down to you,” and professional counseling is helping victims feel more secure. One user recently shared, “This has been hard for me to come to terms with the last couple of weeks but I am doing much better now after speaking about things with you. I feel like we have a lot of plans in place for different scenarios and this makes me feel safe…I really feel a sense of validation I didn’t have before.”
Already a trusted partner of major platforms like Twitter and Wikipedia, Online SOS hopes to officially launch the beta version of its platform, and secure additional partnerships with other leading social platforms in the next year. To date, Online SOS has been supported by Fast Forward, New Media Ventures, Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund,and Voqal, as well as individual donors.
Through Online SOS, we can imagine a world in which online harassment doesn’t cause intense emotional distress or in-person harm. If you or someone you know is experiencing online harassment, visit onlinesosnetwork.org for trusted guidance and support. For more details, visit www.onlinesosnetwork.org