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How to Prevent, Identify and Address Vicarious Trauma — While Conducting Open Source Investigations in the Middle East

October 18, 2018

By Hannah Ellis

Translations: Русский

Whether it involves victims of a chemical attack or a bombing, open source investigators are required to watch and interact with raw footage from the field — it lies at the core of online open source investigation. As a consequence of the increase in eyewitness media, investigators come in contact with a high amount of graphic footage. While this is potential evidence for investigative and accountability purposes, we must be mindful of the effects that traumatic media can have on those coming in contact with it on a regular basis. The consequence of repeated exposure to eyewitness media or testimony is secondary, or vicarious, trauma. It is mental distress that is experienced as an outcome of interacting with graphic online media.

This guide is intended to serve as an educational tool for those working in the open source investigative field. It includes research of Sam Dubberley, Manager at Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps/contributor to the EyeWitness Media Hub, as well as the author’s experience at the Open Source Investigations Lab in the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley Law School. The guide focuses on themes from investigative work as related to the Middle East, but can be adapted to other geographic areas.

Preventing Secondary Trauma

Content from open source investigations in the Middle East is often very graphic in nature. Knowing how to prevent secondary trauma is the first step in slowing burnout caused by vicarious trauma in the human rights field.

One key feature of preventing secondary trauma is knowing yourself, and thus knowing what images affect you the most. For some people, the sound of crying children is particularly traumatic. For others, it is explicit physical injuries. Understanding your own sensitivities is critical for preventing trauma as it allows for mental preparation. One is particularly vulnerable to secondary trauma when the mind is not prepared for or surprised by what it encounters. As a result, it is imperative that you compose yourself mentally for what you are about to see, as well as warning colleagues about traumatic media you intend to show them.  

Another important factor in preventing secondary trauma is understanding your background and environment. Having a personal connection to the work you are investigating can intensify secondary trauma. The conditions that are valuable when conducting open source investigation in the Middle East, such as the ability to speak Arabic or having personal connections to the region, can often cause the impact of graphic media to be more traumatic. Your environment can also impact your susceptibility for secondary trauma. Keep investigative work contained to an office. If you work from home, keep work out of your bedroom. It is important to keep a safe space to come home to. Maintaining a routine with time limits is also necessary. Set time blocks for your work and make an effort to limit work at night.

Prevention when working on open source platforms

When working with media on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook there are several tools to reduce the risk of secondary trauma.

  1. When you are working with a YouTube video, first and foremost, mute your volume. Research shows that sounds of trauma are oftentimes more harmful than images.
  2. While the video is paused, use your cursor to hover over the progress bar to preview the video in thumbnail form (this only works for YouTube and Facebook video and not for Twitter), allowing you to see if/when there is any content that might be traumatic and prepare yourself. If a video includes something particularly explicit, or you are watching the video multiple times for a verification, consider using a sticky note or your hand to cover graphic images.
  3. Always have autoplay turned off. This prevents you from being surprised by another video that could be graphic. In Facebook and Twitter, this has to be done manually in settings.
  4. Lastly, if you are a non-Arabic speaker, translate the title and description of the video you are working on. Start to recognize words that might signal explicit content. Below are a few words to keep in mind.
child طفل/طفلة
chemical attack الهجوم الكيميائي
martyr شهيد
bomb قنبلة
torture تعذيب
family أسرة/عائلة
hospital مستشفى
injury الإصابة

Identifying Secondary Trauma

Overtime, even with vigilance, frequent exposure to graphic content can begin to affect the most resolute investigator. Here are some warning signs to be mindful of in your own life.

Look for changes in your sleep, diet and relationships:

  • Are you sleeping more than normal, not being able to sleep, or having nightmares?
  • Have you started to eat more junk food, or has your appetite decreased?
  • Do you spend more time alone, possibly pushing those close to you away?
  • Has your relationship to drugs and/or alcohol changed?

Veering from normal habits can be a sign that your open source investigative work might be negatively affecting you. Once you recognize these signs it is time to pause and evaluate your mental health.

Addressing Secondary Trauma

If you begin to feel like you are experiencing symptoms of secondary trauma, pause, and reflect on the effects it may be having on you. Take a step back. As open source investigators, we often want to push through these feelings, ignoring them to continue our work. There is a sense of helplessness that comes from being idle in the investigative field. However, to be a productive investigator in the Middle East you must to address the trauma you are experiencing.

Connect with friends and family. Oftentimes connecting with those not in the investigative field provides a welcome break. Opening up to colleagues is equally, if not more, helpful. Your colleagues know exactly what you are going through and what you have been exposed to on a daily basis. Taking time to reflect and support one another is essential for addressing and overcoming trauma.

Finding mental relaxation activities to perform is additionally important. Exercise and meditation have been shown to alleviate the symptoms of vicarious trauma. Introducing exercise can help to reduce anxiety and depression, and provides an aspect of your life in your control. Meditation can be a helpful activity to relax the mind. There are many apps such as The Mindfulness App, Insight Timer, and Headspace that guide you through mediation routines. Decompressing with lite TV or videos can also provide a needed mental break.

Find what works best for you. If symptoms persist, you may want to consider professional counselling.


The Middle East is culturally rich. Yet as investigators we are often only interacting with the most heinous aspects of the region. At the Human Rights Center we deliberately put aside time for Middle Eastern music, art, and poetry, each week to remind us of the beauty and humanity of the region. This helped alleviate potential tunnel vision and lessen the despondency that could build over time.

When conducting open source investigations on the Middle East and North Africa be attentive to your own health. Take breaks, interact with content wisely, and maintain your community. De-stigmatizing the mental stress that comes with this work is equally important. 

Hannah Ellis

Hannah Ellis is currently a research assistant at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and formerly the Team Lead for Syria Investigations at the Open Source Investigations Lab in the Human Rights Center at Boalt Law School.

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  1. JaniePenn-Barwell

    As a Clinical Psychologist I frequently heard about ghastly experience of childhood abuse from my patients. Clinical Psychologists have peer supervision. During this safe hour every week I had an opportunity to share the awfulness with a colleague. I had done extra training in order to offer supervision to peers, trainees and councillors in my team. I wonder if this would be a useful tool and should be used by your organisation.
    Good luck, I’m so pleased you are done no what you do. Janie

    • Tim Sharp

      Yes I’m also a Clinical Psychologist and agree with Janie – it is important if you are working with either traumatised people or trauma related material to have a safe time with someone who knows how to handle sensitive material. What you do here is extremely important and it is essential that people keep safe, I thought the advice given was good but it is helpful to have a think about your personal ability to tolerate extreme material – if you have been directly traumatised before you definitely need to think about whether this material will stir things up.

  2. Adrian Clark

    Really important to have “clinical supervision” which can be done by peers or a team leader, as I was.
    As a prison officer I spent several years doing sex offender and paedophile assessments whilst preparing summary reports for the prison psychology team. The fact the offenders were now caught and in prison, meant they were less guarded and opened up about the full extent of their offending which was often very graphic and explicit.
    Clearly, information such as this cannot be shared with just anybody, perversely I found over the years just being in the company of these types of offenders, albeit for work purposes, was beyond the comprehension of most people.
    Without supervision, and a really healthy dose of commararde and dark humour amongst my small staff team, the things I had to document would have had an adverse impact on me, absolutely no doubt about that.
    As a note for you Hannah, you should seriously consider looking into the “dark humour” as a specialised sub-branch of this issue, and an area so little is known about, but it’s use as a coping mechanism is hugely important, but it would very difficult getting close enough to a team of people for them to open up and exhibit these behaviours.
    This dark humour as a phenomenon can also be found amongst police, fire and forces personnel, but I have never seen it explained properly.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. DDTea

    Back in 2017 after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, I was watching a lot of footage of chemical victims, recording visible symptoms, and comparing them to medical references on nerve agent exposure. I think the context was about Denis O’Brien’s nonsense “rubicund toxin” theory.

    Vicarious trauma is a sneaky thing–and I didn’t at any point *feel* traumatized. What clued me in, though, was leaving a social function early because I simply couldn’t relate to my fellow grad students. I further realized how disrupted my sleep had become and how much I was drinking, and that prompted me to take some time away from the internet.

    Not sure I’m steeled to this stuff yet. I’m reminded of a quote by a Japanese military surgeon affiliated with Unit 731: “I was afraid during my first vivisection, but the second time around, it was much easier. By the third time, I was willing to do it.”

    The clinical attitude comes later than expected. What comes earlier, though, is a false sense of clinical confidence that can really take you for a ride.

  4. Ian Hughes

    Thanks very much Hannah. This is also excellent advice for vegans who are regularly exposed to acts of brutality towards animals via Social Media.

  5. Pencils not bombs

    Your eyes cannot undo what you see. very simple maxim.

    Is open source “investigating” or as a prefer to call it voyeurism nothing more than satisfying your own blood lust or curiosity when there are government and police departments paid to do this type of work? If you’re all so keen to watch snuff movies and post about them, may I suggest you leave your closeted existence and get into the field and witness it first hand rather than hide behind the computer screen?

    I did some open source online research for you and found these articles…

    “Jason Middleton, an associate professor at the University of Rochester, agrees that the viewer of an execution video “is totally implicated, because such videos are an act of communication that is only realised when the intended viewer clicks play”.

  6. Tom Cochrun

    Thank you for the great advice. As a journalist I observed trauma and graphic scenes from the aftermath of disasters, homicides, war zones and humans doing inhumane things. Knowing yourself and your sensitivity are important but some things are an indelible imprint in your mind and one needs to be counteractive too. While some colleagues retreated to drink or drugs, that was only a not so helpful detour.
    Knowing or loving someone with whom you can “depressurize” is helpful. Being honest with yourself and with your dear ones about the impact upon you is important. Talk about it. You cannot mask, nor hide the graphic nature of what you see. Meditation, physical activity, spiritual or faith disciplines are helpful. I would urge those who pursue the noble calling of investigative work and reporting to understand the importance of the mission. It is a way to prepare yourself, to intellectually armor your senses, to recall that what you do is filter, distill and provide essential information or data to a wider society. As one of your respondents said, you cannot un-see something but you can react with analysis and observational skills to keep the emotions in check. When I was a news executive I urged colleagues never to become so calloused about what they see so as to dehumanize themselves. We are better at the work if we can observe and witness and be sensitive to the pain, loss, suffering, emotion and devastation. It is a difficult thing to do, but we understand and can relate the enormity and significance of what we observe if we do so as fully feeling people.
    It is the aftermath and the followup, the antidote behavior that is important to keep us well and healthy. Your work in this area and your attempt to plumb complex human emotional response is very important and as our data and information behavior evolves it will be even more so. Good luck to you and your colleagues.

  7. Carne Ross

    Our team at Independent Diplomat regularly have to view awful videos and pictures from various bloody conflicts. This is really helpful advice for us. Thank you and bravo to Bellingcat for all your great work.

  8. Allison Washington

    I live in the Middle East and interview torture victims, amongst others. I wish I’d had this advice beforehand. At this point I’m not doing so well. There’s no way to get away from it.

    • Barrie

      Dear Alison, As an artist I know the importance of expression, getting thoughts and feelings out, through the use of the arts, in particular writing and image making. I’ve seen how image making can be used to externalise feelings and conflicts through art therapy. Children do it spontaneously.
      You have my admiration for the work you do, take care of yourself.
      Barrie (Australia)


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