The hidden victims of repression – how activists and reporters can protect themselves from secondary trauma

Peaceful protest has long been a way for ordinary people to take a stand against hate, injustice, and corruption. The contentious issues – and types of repression meted out – may change with the times, but the violence itself remains a constant. 

Sweeping crackdowns on protest in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela in recent weeks serve as a reminder of the violence people face when they dare to speak out. Governments continue to unleash an arsenal of tools to suppress dissidents, from batons and pipes, to tear gas and even live bullets. As the death tolls in these countries mount, so does a growing sense of anger and fear felt by protesters.

But the violence isn’t confined to the arena of protest.

Graphic images and videos of beatings, harassment, and killings spill onto social media, often uploaded by the protesters themselves. Across Facebook and Twitter especially, it’s become increasingly common for people to scroll through their feed and see a video of a protester being beaten, or click a hashtag and see a photo of a lifeless body.

This is especially true if you’re a human rights activist or journalist, particularly working in breaking news and open source investigations, where part of your job is to follow conflict and crises as they unfold. You’ll likely be actively looking for graphic footage posted on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – not trying to avoid them.

Amnesty International’s Crisis Response team knows this well. Part of our worldwide investigative work involves collecting, preserving, and verifying raw eyewitness media depicting serious crimes and human rights abuses.

Seeing images of violence and trauma can take its toll. In response to the recent spate of killings at protests, the Crisis Response team’s Evidence Lab have put together tips and advice on how to better care for yourself while working in this environment.

Identifying the issue

It’s important to understand what you’re at risk of in the first place. In this case, as you’ll be viewing content of graphic and violent nature indirectly rather than firsthand, it’s referred to as secondary or vicarious trauma.

As Sam Dubberley, Special Advisor to the Evidence Lab and Manager of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps, says in this report about secondary trauma: “If you are exposed to distressing experiences, even when you are not physically present, your brain has the capacity to experience symptoms of distress similar to those you would experience if you had been there. Our brains are wired to take steps to protect us from perceived threats to our safety. When we see something unexpected, the brain assesses what it is seeing to decide whether we are safe and secure or need to react quickly.”

Common signs of vicarious trauma include experiencing lingering feelings of anger, rage and sadness. In some more extreme cases, intense exposure to such content can lead to anxiety, stress, burnout, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you are exposed to distressing experiences, even when you are not physically present, your brain has the capacity to experience symptoms of distress similar to those you would experience if you had been there.

Sam Dubberley, Special Advisor to the Evidence Lab and Manager of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps

Identify your own personal warning signs

Images of violence and death are upsetting and harmful. But one thing to help mitigate that harm is to verbally acknowledge the task at hand, and to not take a shortcut in hiding your emotions. You should also identify the specific type of content you’re mostly likely to be disturbed by, and then take steps to avoid it when possible.

For example, the most upsetting footage may not be directly depicting death – it could be other related images, such as video of grieving relatives, that trigger the most emotive response.

Something else to consider is if you have a personal connection to the region. For example, if you are Yemeni and you are verifying footage coming out from the country, your background and familiarity with parts of the images may intensify the trauma. “You might have a reaction just from seeing something that reminds you of someone you know,” Sam Dubberley says.

It may not be possible to avoid content from your country – but by identifying this as a factor that can cause additional trauma, you can better prepare yourself in taking precautions.

Use tools and tips on social media

On YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, there are some things you can do right now to help ease any potential triggers for trauma while you’re verifying content:

  • Turn off auto-play. This can be done on all three platforms manually. That way, you won’t be surprised by video, and you can choose when you’re in the right place to start watching.
  • If you only need to view one part of a photo or video to verify it, you could try something as simple as covering the rest of the screen with paper or your hand, so you don’t see disturbing images or footage that’s not needed for your work.
  • Mute the volume if audio isn’t critical to that particular video. Audio, especially cries of pain as shown in footage of bombings and violence at protests, can heighten distress.
  • Disactivate auto-download on WhatsApp, so any videos or photos sent to you on the app won’t automatically save onto your phone. Open WhatsApp and tap the settings button at the bottom-right, and tap on ‘data and storage usage.’ In this menu, you will see the media auto-download – select the ‘never’ option.

Take a break

Try wherever possible limit the time you spend handling graphic footage, and take regular breaks. Do what you can to help yourself become more in tune with observing how your body and mind reacts to graphic footage, and note any signs of stress. If you have trouble sleeping, a range of mood swings, or feel low, consider whether your work is having an impact on your physical and mental wellbeing. Stick to a routine and set time blocks.

Always try to maintain a healthy work/life balance. If you think it may help to talk to someone about the ongoing traumatic footage you deal with on a regular basis, seek support from your colleagues and friends. As you work in this arena already, it may be useful to consider trying regular therapy sessions even before you feel any signs of stress.

Remember the importance of switching off and focusing on something else from time to time. Your work is important – but so is your wellbeing.

Open up and talk

Working with graphic footage has the potential to cause great mental distress. One practical way to ensure your wellbeing is a priority is to talk about it with colleagues, who understand the nature of your work, and can speak from their own personal experience.

And it may be useful to talk about the emotional impact with friends and family, too. But rather than bombarding them, it may be useful to prepare the conversation and ask them first if they are able and willing to hear about a difficult topic.

Talking openly about stress isn’t a sign of weakness. We all have a responsibility to be honest with ourselves and others about the toll this work can take. By speaking up, we can change attitudes and help others who may also need support.