Mean anonymous comments about a newspaper article or a stranger judging someone’s fashion sense online can be hurtful, but there are worse aspects of online bullying that can sometimes even be of interest to the police. However, it can often be difficult to tell where the line between annoying and criminal is.
That’s where Finnish company SomeBuddy wants to be of help. Be it general slander, spreading or blackmailing with private photos or attempts to groom underage girls and boys, the company’s platform aims to help people to take matters in their own hands.
“Surely we all know that bullying online isn’t right, but not everyone is aware that it can be downright criminal,” says Eija-Leena Koponen, AI lead at SomeBuddy. “Approaching the police might feel daunting to many, so our job is to offer easily accessible assistance and guidance.”
Anonymous responses can reveal true crimes
The way SomeBuddy works is that it has a pattern of questions easy enough for an eight-year-old to answer. The questions are used to form an assessment of the respondent’s situation, and the answer is generated automatically using machine learning, with a human at the end of the loop. For example, if a child wants to know if it’s okay that a group in their class is spreading an embarrassing photo, the answer will tell whether or not this is the case and what possibilities there are to proceed – in an age-appropriate manner.
Sometimes the information fed to SomeBuddy can indicate serious crimes, such as sexual abuse. Koponen emphasises that although the service is anonymous, in very severe cases there are ways in which SomeBuddy can advise and encourage the person to report the events to the police.
SomeBuddy also gives the respondent a letter they can show to a reliable adult, like a parent or teacher, or take directly to the police.
“For the police, the letter is material for a preliminary investigation,” Koponen tells.
However, not all users are young or particularly vulnerable. SomeBuddy also gives a helping hand to adults who are wondering whether or not their treatment online, such as Twitter rage targeted at them, counts as a crime or hate speech. This, Koponen says, saves them the trouble and money of seeking advice from lawyers. The police often doesn’t even have the resources to start investigating borderline cases, so SomeBuddy is of assistance in determining whether or not reporting the abuse is worth it to begin with.
Visiting the Swedish royals
SomeBuddy currently covers Finland and Sweden. Finnish cyber security company F-Secure offers SomeBuddy in one of its service packages, and SomeBuddy is searching for institutions and organisations, the likes of schools and charities, to partner up with. For example, the City of Turku in Finland provides its pupils, students and school employees free access to SomeBuddy.
“In a way, offering SomeBuddy to an entire group of young people is a way to boost herd immunity,” Koponen explains. “Even if it doesn’t prevent bullying from happening, at least it increases awareness of its consequences.”
Koponen notes that as there are billions of social media users in the world, there’s plenty of market left for the company to conquer. Next, the team will focus on Germany and the UK, which means that the content will need to be adjusted to suit each country’s legal framework.
The company has already gathered interest from beyond its home country’s borders. One of its founders, Suvi Uski, even visited the royals in Sweden and explained the story of SomeBuddy to some pretty powerful listeners as part of an invite-only event focusing on ways to protect children on social media.
“It has been great to receive support and see the interest grow, and there’s still loads of work to be done,” Koponen concludes. “Being bullied online can be just as bad as face-to-face – or even worse.”