Online SOS Helps Victims of Online Harassment – Interview with Founder, Sam Silverberg

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down for an hourlong chat with Sam Silverberg, one of the co-founders of Online SOS.

For those unaware, Online SOS is a service that’s dedicated to providing support for victims of online harassment. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Sam about the history of the company, some of her own experiences with online harassment, and some of the insights from her work.

Hi Sam! First of all, thanks for taking the time to chat with me on a Saturday morning. I remember you were mentioning you had a big press event last week – how did that go?

It went really well! We just came back from a private training for a magazine in New York City, where the editor-in-chief concerned about how a lot of their journalists were experiencing online harassment, and recognized that, especially since the election, the number of negative comments journalists might face had gotten larger, and so they wanted to get a sense of how journalists should be coping.

That’s actually one of the questions I wanted to eventually touch on – the different populations that your service sees most frequently.

Journalists are just one of the populations that we work with; based on our clientele, we see three types of clients.

The majority of people coming to us are journalists or content creators. The second tier of people are gamers and streamers. The third tier – based on my experience in mental health work – are clients that are being harassed by someone they might personally know, like an ex-partner or friends they had some kind of falling out with.

So Online SOS is about a year old; it’s a very new company, small team, and obviously a passion project. What drove you to be a part of this? How was Online SOS founded?

We started up last year in August 2016, but the idea came about in April.

My co-founder, Liz, had attended the online harassment summit at South by Southwest around then – which I wasn’t able to go to – and she and I had talked about starting something to support individuals experiencing online harassment.

At the time, she was working as an investment banker and realizing there was this disconnect with investors understanding this. She had also had a personal experience with online harassment.

I myself was working as a therapist, primarily seeing a lot of adolescents and young adults. This was something they were dealing with on social media every day, and I didn’t really know how to help them.

Five years ago, I had my own really severe experience of online harassment, where I was stalked online, and then it became in person. In that moment, I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t seek any help until all these horrific events had already happened, and then I was embarrassed and ashamed of it. Even though I knew as a therapist what I would tell my clients, it was very hard to take my own advice at the time.

When Liz and I first talked about creating something like this, our first thought was to create a financial fund, but reflecting on it, I realized it was more about the trauma. Being in the mental health field, I knew all about the structural changes to the brain during trauma, how these changes impact your concentration and decision-making. I thought to myself, “No one’s even going to know where to look for services,” which is exactly what happened to Liz and to me when we were going through this.

So we decided to found an organization that provides direct services for individuals experiencing online harassment.

Are there any other services similar to yours out there? How does Online SOS differ from, or complement, these other services?

As of right now, there are no other services in the U.S. aside from us. There are none in Canada. There are two in the U.K. that provide some direct services, and they have trained professionals, but we don’t know the level of training.

We wanted to have peer-to-peer support, and while we have tons of resources listed on our website – HeartMob, for example – we felt like it was so important to have professional support.

We wanted to have the mental health support done by professionals and to be able to create an empathic referral system where, say, if someone needs a lawyer, we can say, “Here’s a lawyer in your state, and we’ve already vetted them,” or to walk them through the process of escalating a claim to Facebook, or to connect them to a tech expert. Individuals experiencing this want to know what their options are, but because an experience like this is so upsetting, they don’t really know where to start. We help with everything in one supportive place.

The other final thing that we do is we recognize the difficulty in documenting and reporting and how important that is. Oftentimes what we’re hearing from platforms and law enforcement is that they can’t get a coherent timeframe of events from the individual – which makes sense, because, you know, your hippocampus is impacted so you have difficulty remembering and recalling. So we’ve created a form that we fill in with our clients that they then have access to and can submit anywhere where they need to retell their story without actually retelling it and re-traumatizing themselves.

When people think of abuse or harassment or stalking or that kind of thing, often the automatic and instinctual picture that arises is that the victim is female – which may not be true.

My question to you is: have you noticed any trends when it comes to the people who are undergoing this experience, in terms of sex and gender or socioeconomic status, or is this something that just transcends demographics altogether?

It certainly can happen to anyone. The research indicates that it’s happening more so to females, but also that females are reporting more than males, and even females are not reporting that much.

There’s a statistic that over 100 million Americans experience online harassment, and different studies show that between 10% to 15% report. Those are really small numbers, so it really could be happening to anyone.

What we’re seeing with our clients is that the majority of people coming and seeking help from us are these vulnerable populations, like women, women of colour, and individuals from the LGBTQI community.

But we’re also seeing this very disproportionate level of victims in the media and tech space as well: gamers, streamers, journalists, content creators, anyone kind of at that intersection, we’re seeing a greater need and also a higher level of severity of the harassment.

For a lot of people, ‘online harassment’ is this nebulous concept – in cases like credit card theft, threatening language, and so on, it’s very obvious and clear to grasp that that’s what happening. However, on your website you mention cases like identity theft, impersonation, nonconsensual pornography, and other things that maybe don’t immediately come to mind when one thinks of online harassment.

What other forms of virtual harassment are out there that you think our readers should be aware of and looking out for?

One of the things we struggle with is there are a couple of definitions of online harassment floating around. In our definition, online harassment includes ongoing, subjective emotional distress, and with purposeful intent from the person engaging in it.

What’s interesting is that it’s very similar to the definition of a psychological trauma: a complex psychological trauma is ongoing, causes subjective distress, makes the person fear for their safety or their life.

With online harassment, we’re seeing impersonation, as you mentioned, or threats of violence. Especially with females, we see threats of rape or being harmed physically.

We’re also seeing doxxing. I think when people think of doxxing they think of, say, Gamergate or something like that, but really doxxing can mean any kind of release of your personal information. Even if it’s one person giving your information to another, that’s still a release of your personal information over the internet when you did not give permission to do that.

We’re also seeing swatting, which most people are not familiar with – false police reports where individuals have police show up at their door in the middle of the night, and they have no idea what’s going on or why the cops have been called. That’s the most severe one I can think of.

Most of our clients report threats of violence, threats of extortion, to release inappropriate photos. That last one we’re not getting as many about actual cases but a lot of times the person is threatening to release that information and it’s unclear if they actually do have the information.

We’re also seeing threats to impact their work – calling their employers to say certain things, that’s been a big one as of late.

Any threat that’s going to impact your livelihood we place under the umbrella of ‘online harassment’. It’s different from cyberbullying or trolling; we’re drawing the boundary between being told “You’re ugly” versus “I’m going to come to your home and rape you”. That’s the distinction for us.

It can be hard to empathize with the perpetrators of this abuse, but do you have any insights as to who is doing this and why they choose online harassment as their medium to harm others?

The anonymity makes it easier for someone fearful of the consequences to be able to say what they might not be able to say in person.

It’s a bit of a cliché saying, but still true: hurt people hurt people. A lot of times we see individuals who have been hurt online or in person find ways to cope with that by hurting other people.

And so if someone has been maliciously bullied for a long time, and is struggling and feeling angry and unable to cope through seeking help or talking to their support – or maybe they don’t even have their own support – it’s an easy way to let out that aggression in a way where that can’t be easily tracked back to them.

People, for some reason, really struggle to empathize with individuals over the internet. Most people realize that that’s another person on the other end, but some people compartmentalize someone they’re talking to online as not actually another human in order to lessen the negative feelings about the behaviours they’re engaging in.

Also, often individuals hold strong stances on topics and in the heat of the moment can escalate very quickly online. Some banter will take place, but at a certain point someone crosses a boundary and then they end up kind of spitting something out almost without a thought towards it.

For clients where the perpetrator is an ex-partner, a lot of times the ex didn’t think it would be taken seriously – they were angry and felt like they lacked closure, and so it was easier to do something online with the contact information they already had.

I recently worked with a client who realized their perpetrator was an ex-partner. They confronted them face-to-face and the perpetrator said it started almost as a joke the first time, because they didn’t feel great about how the situation ended, and they wanted to make themselves feel better. It continued to the point where my client was not leaving their home and wouldn’t take public transportation, but the perpetrator had no idea how distressful it was for the other person.

One of the things we struggle with is there are a couple of definitions of online harassment floating around. In our definition, online harassment includes ongoing, subjective emotional distress, and with purposeful intent from the person engaging in it.

How often does the online harassment turn into a physical escalation?

We’re seeing very small numbers in our work. In the last year, we’ve served about 450 people, and it’s only become an in-person escalation less than 5% of the time. Even those incidents have been minimal: the person showing up at their home and then going away because the police have been called and suddenly the situation is uncomfortable.

I actually don’t think we’ve ever had a client who’s been physically assaulted. I think I’m the only person who’s been through something like that!

In terms of actual studies, unfortunately the data right now is only on the harassment. There aren’t any long-term case studies that examine how much of that becomes physical, so there isn’t a hard figure, but I do know it’s very small.

Still, something we stress to all of our clients is that, because the threats of physical violence are so frequent, it’s important to protect yourself and make sure your data is private. With clients who have had those threats, we’ve worked to get legal support to avoid the potential for a physical altercation in the future. We’ve worked with cybercrime units in different states to serve restraining orders. I’d rather someone be safe and take all the precautions than to think it probably won’t happen and then, God forbid something happen, have to struggle with that.

These kinds of legal services and counselling can add up and get quite costly. I know Online SOS gets some funding through the Social Good Fund, but again, Online SOS is a young non-profit organization with a small team, so what are the challenges of providing a very big, very important service with so few resources?

So right now we’re fiscally sponsored by Social Good Fund – they don’t give us any money, but we fall under them for our 501(c)(3). The benefit of that is that people can make donations to us right now and those donations are tax-deductible.

It’s helpful for us, because applying for a 501(c)(3) is time-consuming and costly. The Social Good Fund has freed our hands a little to take our time in applying. Right now this project is completely self-funded, with the help of charity streams, donations, and also developing corporate partnership programs to help us stay funded.

Our current team comprises of myself, my cofounder Liz, and our CTO Simone; within the next few months we are looking to scale our services.

Right now, if an individual contacts us, they’ll speak with me, and if they need direct information, I’ll ask them a few questions and provide that. However, for more intensive cases we do a 30 to 45 minute intake to come up with treatment goals, and I work with them over several sessions to reach those goals. All of that is completely free of charge.

What we’re really spending money on is external referrals – legal consultations, things like that. We do have partnerships with reduced fees, but we’re still covering those costs. Again, we’re primarily run on the funds we started with, as well as donations, but our hope is to grow that.

A big challenge is that this is a needed service, and when we talk to people we hear that. At the same time, it’s not as pretty a package to sell. I don’t have a picture of a cute dog that I can show and say, “Please help!”

Our clients, you know, I want to protect them. Some people will ask me to share a case study, and I can give very vague information, but in the end we’re protecting our clients. We know this is a huge problem, and there’s a need for this, but services are expensive. And we need that funding to be able to help.

Another big challenge is how do we scale our services and prove to people that we can serve hundreds of thousands of people, rather than just a couple hundred. And don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy we’ve been able to serve that many within the first year, but I do recognize on social media platforms there are thousands of reports each month. We want to provide a resource that they can turn to as they wait to see how the platform will handle that.

So for us the two big challenges are finances (and not having that steady source of it) and figuring out the best way to scale with what we have right now.

Are there benefits to working in such a small team?

Yeah! We all get along very well and tend to be on the same page. Geographically, we’re all over the place; I’m in the New York metropolitan area and Liz and Simone are in San Francisco. We’re always back and forth with meetings and discussions – as we work out a plan of action, it’s beneficial that we don’t have other people working under us. I would hate to have a team of multiple people under us not really in the loop and then always changing the vision or changing the shape of how things run here.

In the last few months we’ve done a lot of development on what the program really looks like, what it will change to look like once we’ve scaled, and at that point then the goal will be to take on additional professionals so that we have more individuals to continue to provide free support and assistance.

It’s great to hear that you guys are planning to expand in the future. As a gamer, I have personally undergone instances of violent language, sexual language, and so on, and I think that it’s great that this service addresses what is rapidly becoming a very large problem with very few answers.

Awareness is going to be a critical factor in getting Online SOS’s presence online – so to speak – to truly have the impact you speak of. What are the next steps for you when it comes to raising awareness?

For us, we see Online SOS as, “People first, technology second.” It’s really important for us to provide a support service at the individual level, so attending PAX, or TwitchCon last year, where we can meet in person and speak with hundreds of people at one time, is really beneficial to us.

We’re also hoping to scale out our tech side to show people that there is a resource and it’s been all put in one place for them.

The third piece is advocacy. There are amazing groups that advocate for online harassment, changes for platforms, and so on. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel; we’d rather work with those groups and know that we’re providing the service piece here. However, we realize that part of the knowledge we gain working with clients can be used to advocate for changes on platforms, and we hope to do that in the future.

For us, the big thing to be able to continue this individual-level work is to come up with resolution partners of other organizations so that they can provide this one service, and we can be linked as a sister organization that provides the other side of it.

The other big thing we’re hoping to do is to provide training. We’ve realized that training is really important, whether it’s for an HR department to understand how this impacts their employees, or at mental health centres to let other clinicians know what’s going to be happening in these cases and how to manage it, or for community managers and mods on how to deal with the vicarious trauma of having to look at some of that material yourself. These trainings are really important and allow us to expand outreach while providing a place for people to just get basic info to begin with.

The focus this year is going to be working on expanding our presence on platforms as well as providing more trainings for organizations that are aware that this is a problem and are not sure what they can do internally, so we’re really looking forward to that.

Do you have any advice for our readers – a lot of whom are gamers, streamers, and very prolific on social media – on how to mitigate any risks in putting yourself and your presence online? For example, basic safety steps can someone take to protect themselves against these incidents?

Firstly, we don’t want to be one of those organizations that say, “Don’t say anything controversial,” because the internet is a place for discussion, and you should have the right to say what you want to say.

One of the things I can recommend is to do an audit and ‘data clean’ of yourself. Searching yourself up – there are certain websites that will do this for a fee, or it’s a little time-intensive but can be done on your own. Sites like Spokeo, for example, will do this. Be really cognizant of what data is published about you.

A lot of social media platforms several years ago used to require a phone number from you but don’t anymore, so that’s not something you necessarily need to put out there.

Another thing I’ve learned is that IP addresses can be tracked on Skype, and I didn’t know that before. So just be sure you have a secure internet connection when using services like Skype, Zoom, BlueJeans, any of those conference type platforms.

So: check your data, make sure it’s private… we talk about two-factor authentication, setting up a VPN if possible if you have a larger presence, but a big piece is communicating assertively and seeking out support.

Being cognizant of relationships online – we’ll see individuals getting harassed by someone they don’t know in person, but it’s one of their friends from gaming or streaming online.

Be aware of red flags. If someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, saying, “Hey, this makes me uncomfortable” and shifting the dynamic can avoid an escalation in the future. That’s the big one I’ve seen in our clients over the last year – being comfortable with your own feelings.

Oftentimes I’ll talk to clients who will say, “Something made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to be mean to that person.” There are ways to communicate assertively without being aggressive and making the other person feel bad. If you’re uncomfortable with something someone else has said, it’s totally okay to let the other person know and put an early stop to it. Oftentimes I’ve had clients who will not say anything, and the other person kind of escalates and becomes more and more inappropriate over time.

Identify people in your life who are supportive, and know where to go if you feel like you don’t have support about these things – whether that’s through family and friends, work, communities, or professional help, somewhere where you aren’t going to be judged and will be provided with an objective viewpoint.

Know that whatever your decision is, it’s your decision – there’s no right or wrong way to respond to something. We want individuals to think about the consequences for themselves and other people, and to think about the best way to respond for themselves and for others involved. We don’t want to say to someone, “Don’t respond,” if they’re very set on responding, and we don’t want to say to someone that they should respond if they don’t want to respond.

There’s a little bit of this culture, especially in gaming circles, where abusive language and harassment is part and parcel of the experience, and responding to that is considered shameful or a sign of not being a real gamer.

This is something that has happened over time, because there aren’t as many bystanders willing to stand up, and so it makes other people hesitate to stand up, and so you get this big groupthink dynamic of, “Well no one else did, so I don’t have to either.”

We want to empower people to do what’s best for them and to stress that, whatever anyone is saying to them, they didn’t do anything to deserve that, and they have every right to stick up for themselves. That shouldn’t be a shaming or negative experience. We hope to really bring that to light.

Our hope is that more individuals will start to say, “Hey, that is true, this is making me uncomfortable, and I do want to say something about it.”

We’re taught to just laugh it off, or to think that it’s just online, or that if it’s so upsetting, there’s always the option of getting off and taking a break, but no one should have to give up something they like doing simply because of the language someone else is using.

One last question for you. You mentioned that Online SOS does rely a lot on donations, funding, and charity streams. How can our readers connect with or contribute to Online SOS if they want to raise awareness about your great service, or if they or someone they know require the use of your services?

Our website, onlinesosnetwork.org, has our contact info on it – [email protected] I typically respond to emails very quickly.

We’re always looking for volunteers to help raise awareness, and we’re always looking for partners for charity streams – where I’m usually actually in the chat during the stream for certain, say, ‘office hours’ where the audience can connect, watch, and ask questions during the stream. In one case, I talked with 86 people, which is a lot of individuals for a week’s stream.

If anyone is interested in volunteering to raise awareness on campus or in whatever community they’re in, or do some kind of stream or get involved in some way, we did just start a volunteer affiliate program, and we’re very excited about that. I’m happy to chat with anyone interested via the ‘Info’ email.

For anyone looking to donate, we have a donation link on our website, or reach out to us and we can walk you through that.

Anyone can reach out, and we’re very happy to help and talk to anyone, even if it’s just for broad inquiries.

If we’ve helped raise awareness of your services in any way with this interview, then we’ve accomplished our goals.

Our hope from this interview is that individuals will reach out more for help if they feel like they don’t have the support needed.

Ours as well, and we know that any individuals in need who come your way will be in good hands.

Thank you so much! It was great chatting with you.

Thank you, and take care!



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