When watching violence is your job: workers on the digital frontline


Human rights organizations must do more for staff at headquarters who are on the digital front lines. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on mental health and human rights. العربية. Español

Sam Dubberley
12 April 2017

To say that mobile technologies, social media and increased connectivity have had a huge impact on human rights investigation is nothing new. Human rights organisations have been using new technologies in their work for decades. Researchers and activists have set up new workflows, we have processes to verify that an image depicts what we are told it is, and the human rights community has considered how we to protect those depicted in the imagery we discover. While much has been written about these changes, little consideration has been given to how such work has affected human rights investigators themselves. There is little discussion as to how organisations need to address the mental health of investigators based at their headquarters in London or New York or Geneva. How do organizations build resilience against vicarious trauma amongst their staff working not on the physical front line, but on the digital front line?

It can be dangerous or difficult to enter some countries to conduct investigation.

Traditionally, human rights investigation is conducted in the field. Ideally, of course, this is still the case. However, it can be dangerous or difficult to enter some countries to conduct investigation. The availability of cheap mobile images sensors and improved network connections today means that human rights investigation can be done from the relative safety of head offices. Within this progress lies a big problem for the investigator. Videos and photographs depicting human rights violations or humanitarian crises in far-off places are often captured on the mobile phones of the people who are themselves the victims of the possible abuses or humanitarian crises. They are captured haphazardly with the goal of raising awareness of their plight. They require verification—and frequently depict the immediate raw aftermath of a violent event, such as massacres in the Syrian conflict, or extra-judicial killings in Nigeria.


Pixabay (Some rights reserved)

Traditionally, human rights investigation is conducted in the field. Ideally, of course, this is still the case. However, it can be dangerous or difficult to enter some countries to conduct investigation.

While the human rights investigator knows they have to use this content—to see if it can be turned into evidence for advocacy or legal action—they are often seeing far bloodier and more graphic content than the traditional investigator would ever see. As a journalist who worked on the front line and with digital content noted: “You witness [violence] a lot more with UGC [user-generated content]. You’re exposed to more intense visual material than battle-hardened war cameramen sitting in Sarajevo in the middle of the 1990s because it’s coming at you from everywhere—even more so than say in Jerusalem. I was there at the height of the intifada and there were body parts flying in and out of the office like nobody’s business, but there’s now a lot more of it”.

In 2016, Amnesty International launched the Digital Verification Corps—a network of student volunteers based at universities around the world who are trained in the verification of social media content. Its goal was to help Amnesty with its research but also to help other organisations and projects where possible. All the volunteers receive training in open source investigation skills, but they also receive resiliency training. In fact, participation in the Digital Verification Corps is not allowed without each volunteer having had both of these trainings.

Including such training on vicarious trauma is critical for this program and others like it. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published in 2013 was updated to classify watching videos of traumatic events as being a pathway to post-traumatic stress disorder if it is part of the individual’s work. If, as representatives of Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps, we failed to build the resiliency of individuals working with traumatic imagery, we would be remiss in our duty of care to our volunteers.

Unfortunately, many organisations are still not doing even this basic due diligence. Research has shown that professionals working with this content are being affected by it, but organisations are not responding. This, I would argue, is for three main reasons. First, the speed of change. The rapid expansion of photographs and videos being published on social media networks has surprised even the most avid technology watchers. With more and more content shared, and new techniques for open source investigation developed on the fly, human rights organisations have been forced to engage with content sourced from social media without necessarily being able to put any processes in place. Second, this speed has been met, in general, with a lack of awareness amongst managers. Many managers have not worked in a social media content environment and are, therefore, not necessarily aware of the workflows involved in sourcing and verifying content and the distressing impact this can have. Third, because of the speed and the lack of knowledge of how social media environments work, the social media researcher has rarely been trained in resilience and how to cope in these environments. They also do not feel able to speak up about the problems they are having with their managers (who do not understand vicarious trauma) as they fear it may have a negative impact on their careers.

Traditionally, organisations have provided care and resilience training for staff sent on mission to work on the physical frontline, which is obviously important. There is a need, however, for this training to be extended to those working with distressing social media imagery—those working on the digital frontline. Managers and organisational structures need to be sensitive to vicarious or secondary trauma and the associated risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. While staff working in danger zones do, to some extent, have their mental health needs recognised, a stigma connected to mental wellbeing and viewing distressing imagery in the main headquarters of an organisation exists. Lifting this stigma—and the associated barrier to seeking help—is required so that those researchers who find and verify content sourced from social media can effectively raise awareness of human rights abuses. While attitudes are changing, there is a need for organisations to cooperate and better understand the link between viewing social media imagery and vicarious trauma.


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