In March 2021, students and staff from UC Berkeley’s Investigations Lab gathered in a Zoom room—physically separate due a spike in COVID-19, but together online—each square on their screens a glimpse into the others’ private pandemic worlds. But unlike most Zoom calls, they weren’t talking to or even looking at each other. Each was busy scanning the internet, scrolling through amateur videos and photos that had been posted to websites like Facebook and Twitter. The images showed real-time horrors unfolding in Myanmar: a young man riding with two friends on a motorbike on a quiet street, suddenly ripped by a bullet. A body flung into the back of a truck. Wailing family members beseeching someone, anyone, to account for their loss.
These students are part of a growing community of digital researchers who gather potential evidence of genocide, war crimes, and human rights violations from the internet, sometimes thousands of miles from the sites of atrocity. Since 2016, the Investigations Lab we founded at the Human Rights Center, a multidisciplinary research institution on the UC Berkeley campus, has trained hundreds of students how to search social media for information about possible human rights violations. We founded the Lab to create a pipeline of professionals with the latest research skills, but also to support the work of journalists, human rights researchers, and lawyers who may not have the training or time to find reliable data online to strengthen their investigations.
The work isn’t easy. Long hours reviewing videos and photos of some of the worst things human beings can do to each other can be emotionally taxing. That’s why early in the Lab’s existence, we began searching out science-based approaches to preventing secondary trauma—the emotional distress that can come from experiencing others’ pain second-hand, including in online spaces—and to train our students in best practices. We’ve since interviewed dozens of experts and reviewed research that spotlights ways to handle harmful content that can be as valuable to our personal livesas our professional ones. These experts shared numerous tactics, from increasing awareness of what especially affects you to “tips and tricks” for lessening the emotional impact of videos and photographs—strategies that can ultimately benefit all social media users, particularly students.
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Today, most of us are tethered to our cell phones. While we aren’t necessarily scouring social media for evidence of war crimes like these student researchers, we may regularly stumble across graphic images on Twitter (now X), TikTok, or Facebook. Social media posts may expose us to children who’ve been killed in Ukraine, to people blinded in protests, or to other horrors—even while making breakfast for our kids, working out in a gym, or scrolling Instagram for entertainment.
This new world order begs the following questions: How can anyone—whether they work in human rights or not—witness the cruelties of the world without becoming numb to them? And how can we minimize the potential for harm and maximize the social and psychological benefits from our time spent online?
While the strategies are numerous, three are especially powerful: Being intentional about your watching, sharing your experience with others, and minimizing needless exposure.
Psychologists Metin Başoğlu and Ebru Salcioglu have explained that anxiety often comes from feeling like you have a lack of control over upsetting experiences, and depression stems from having a lack of hope that things will be better in the future. Whether we absorb the pain found online in ways that strengthen us versus sending us into a demotivated spiral depends not only on what we watch, but even more importantly on how we watch and why.
According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which explores the “science of a meaningful life,” engaging in actions with purpose can be powerful. These social science researchers define purpose as an intent to achieve a goal that is “both personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world.” Can we approach our news intake more intentionally in order to better protect ourselves online? What might that look like in practice?
The idea of “bearing witness” can help bring meaning to our viewing. Medical anthropologist and global health pioneer Paul Farmer considered bearing witness as a form of observing with compassion and solidarity. It is viewing “done on behalf of others, for their sake (even if those others are dead and forgotten).” This experience can be incredibly meaningful for the observer.
Such an approach can be contrasted with “doom-scrolling,” or robotically scanning one graphic image after another. Mindless intake can be especially damaging because of the potential scale of the exposure, the relative lack of analysis and context, and our own lack of agency. Criminal investigators, on the other hand, explained to us that their analytical process—scanning a photo for clues, having a reason to scrutinize something horrific—often helped to limit their psychological distress.
In addition to being clear about our purpose, it’s important to limit exposure. War crimes and human rights investigators sometimes compare the graphic nature of information found on the internet to “toxic waste.” Would you mindlessly expose yourself or your family to radiation without taking precautions? Or do so at large scales or for long time periods, understanding how harm can accumulate over time? Though the pain of others should never be considered “waste,” this protective framing helps underscore the dangers of overexposure.
Some of us may be especially vulnerable to secondary trauma. One indicator is whether you have experienced trauma yourself. And when you identify with the person who is being harmed in a social media post by way of language, ethnicity, gender, country of origin or another aspect of your identity, or identify with the trauma they’ve experienced, the risk of your own psychological harm may be especially acute. Knowing this can help you to recognize when additional protective measures might be especially helpful—such as lowering the sound on a video or minimizing the screen size to limit the emotional impact, all tactics used by professionals. Or you can read a newspaper article about an event instead of watching the raw footage, if you want to know the facts but minimize the salience.
Dr. Keramet Reiter and others say another powerful way to maximize meaning and minimize harm is to discuss what you’ve seen, using it as a mechanism to connect with others. The sense of community such discussions can generate can also be protective.
Recent research from psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge suggests that teenagers are experiencing unprecedented levels of loneliness and that there’s a link to the rising use of smartphones and social media. One study they conducted with colleagues analyzed results from a survey of 15-and 16-year-olds. The survey revealed an increase in loneliness in 36 out of 37 countries over a six year period (2012–2018). While this trend isn’t conclusively caused by social media, it correlates with its rise. Another study, led by UK researcher Rebecca Nowland, similarly found a rise in loneliness with increased digital engagement; however, that study also offers that social media may reduce loneliness when actively used to establish “new social connections.” One suggestion from this body of research into social media use and loneliness is to think about how to use social media to create connection—not replace it—the latter of which can exacerbate a sense of isolation.
The speed and scale of our exposure to graphic imagery has been exacerbated by current technologies, but the need to derive meaning from images that document events outside of our experience is timeless. Susan Sontag noted in her book Regarding the Pain of Others that each of us reacts to images in unique ways that are tied to our identities as well as our ideologies. While one person may view a photo from a war zone and feel a need to advocate for peace, another may identify with the individuals who were harmed and demand greater militancy. Images don’t “speak” for themselves—it’s up to each of us to imbue them with meaning, as well as to pull meaning from our witnessing.
Back in Berkeley, California, our students weren’t always physically together as they looked at upsetting videos of violence, but they could talk with each other and understand each other’s experience, deepening their sense of community. Through this collective activity they could take collective action. Over the longer term, their work could be used to advocate for intervention, or potentially as evidence to help secure legal justice for those suffering in Myanmar. But in the shorter term, each of those students was finding their own meaning, both through the process of discovery and through time spent with each other.
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