One of the biggest dilemmas that social media users encounter during and after a humanitarian crisis or natural disaster is the sheer number of posts and visuals, shared by local and international activists as well as relief and human rights organisations, that are mostly classified as graphic.

Ever since the Internet became a constant presence in our lives—as did the clichés about it turning the world into a “global village”—we no longer have the luxury of choosing whether or not to take in certain information. Our only choice is to scroll or stop, and if we stop, to choose whether or not we are going to act. If we decide not to act, we will inevitably keep sliding our finger across the screen.

Faced with guilt over our perceived inability to do anything about ongoing crises, and our unwillingness to allow sombre images to disrupt our day, we seek out convenient ways to ease our consciences. Why, we ask, should people even share stories about victims of human rights violations or natural disasters in areas already affected by conflict, and do we really have to watch these grim scenes unfold? Writing to you from a conflict-ridden area as a survivor of human rights violations myself, I say yes! It is imperative for individuals and organisations to share such scenes, and for you to stop sometimes to reflect on them.

The dilemma of sharing versus not sharing

Under virtually any post that includes graphic content depicting the impact of a human rights violation or a natural disaster that has struck a vulnerable region, hundreds of comments are posted to criticise the sharing of such content on social media platforms. These commenters usually argue that graphic content can inflict psychological damage on viewers, that the publisher’s motives are suspect (i.e. they want to boost engagement and following), or support the misconception that sharing such content cannot be part of the solution, so there is no point in posting it.

   Journalists, activists, and organisations must ensure that photographs, videos, and any news featuring victims or survivors does not further endanger, stigmatise them, or violate their privacy or dignity   

In fact, the first reason is justified, as absorbing shocking videos or images has been scientifically proven to affect mental health, and can cause vicarious trauma, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, or insomnia. In the best-case scenario, a person may experience feelings related to a psychological condition known as “survivor’s guilt”, which is a type of guilt experienced by people who have survived catastrophic events and witnessed others fall victim to them.

While the term first appeared in the 1940s and was based on diagnosed cases of people who survived the Holocaust, survivor’s guilt is no longer limited to those who experience traumatic events personally; due to the Internet and social media, we can now develop it simply by watching traumatic scenes on small screens and feeling guilty that we are going about our lives as usual while others suffer under rubble after bombings, or are trapped in prisons. For survivors of previous traumatic experiences, watching these scenes may also trigger flashbacks of their own traumas, which can set them back in their recovery.

It is wholly understandable for people who have been through either of the two aforementioned cases to avoid watching graphic content on social media or televised news. In fact, they must avoid sources of content that may cause them complications for a set period in order to protect their mental health. Ultimately, the health of those traumatised from previous experiences must be addressed on an individual basis; despite the importance of these survivors’ healing, the reality on the ground often requires an immediate global response. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) must be dealt with in part by affected individuals distancing themselves from news and social media sources as much as possible, not by preventing sources from sharing current scenes from more recent disasters and ongoing humanitarian crises widely.

Concerning the motives of the publishers, there is some truth in the belief that many accounts deliberately and continuously share shocking and emotionally devastating scenes to increase engagement and following, rather than to raise awareness of victims’ suffering or call for their support. Many accounts associated with journalists or media agencies err in attempting to report a “scoop” by broadcasting unverified or particularly horrifying news, or invading the privacy of victims who express clear disapproval (verbally or gesturally) of being subjected to photographs or interviews.

Victims need the world to recognise their reality

During and after any humanitarian crisis, victims need to feel connected to the rest of the world and know that there is widespread awareness and understanding of the extent of their pain. In truth, the most basic level of support that we can provide is simply imagining the extent of others’ suffering. In some cases, it is almost enough only to imagine, to show victims that we understand what they are going through, and to feel the terrible pain they experience.

Following Israeli military attack on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor conducted field interviews with dozens of Palestinian survivors in the targeted areas. When asked what caused them the most pain and trauma during and after the attack, many of them said they felt isolated and forgotten, as if the world had left them alone to face “unimaginable injustice and suffering”.

Nothing in the 21st century can communicate the extent of suffering as much as utilising technology in transmitting sound and image, and conveying the voices of victims themselves rather than telling the viewer about them. It’s no surprise that most journalists who visit affected areas wind up surrounded—when conducting an interview with a single victim or survivor—by dozens of others who gather around the camera or media crew, each trying to talk about their own suffering. These people are looking for a chance to break their sense of isolation and show the world their painful reality, as part of a cathartic attempt to gain sympathy and support.

Even in the most difficult of times, however, journalists, activists, and organisations must uphold professional ethics by conducting verification efforts and ensuring that photographs, videos, and any news featuring victims or survivors does not further endanger or stigmatise them, violate their privacy or dignity, or expose them to exploitation in any way. In all cases, the psychological and physical safety of those affected by a crisis must remain the top priority.

Compassion-driven action, backed by science

In a 2019 experiment led by Stefan Pfattheicher, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Denmark’s Aarhus University, as well as other researchers, participants were told the story of George, a 70-year-old man who suffered a shoulder injury that caused him great pain. Participants were divided into two groups: one was told to think deeply about George’s story and imagine the extent of his pain, and received guidance in developing feelings of compassion for him, while the other was told to read George’s story objectively without forming feelings, and was guided toward remaining emotionally detached from it.

After researchers confirmed that the members of the first group felt deep compassion for George while the members of the second group were unaffected by his suffering, they directed both groups to read the rest of the story, which included details about George’s shoulder being injured after a young man deliberately collided with him and knocked him down. Participants in the first group (who had developed feelings of compassion) expressed anger toward the young man, prompting them to endorse statements such as “I want to teach this young man a lesson” and “I want this young man to be severely punished,” whereas members of the second group remained emotionally detached, and did not feel the need to punish or hold the young man accountable for the injury.

The researchers conducted similar experiments using stories of terror attacks, sexual assault, child rape, and war, and reached the same conclusion in each experiment, which was that compassion “practically stimulated” the third party’s desire to punish the perpetrator.

Similar to Pfattheicher, neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas argues that compassion for victims’ suffering inspires the desire to right the wrongs inflicted on them, and plays an essential role in achieving justice. Researchers characterised compassion as including the desire to help and going beyond empathy, which is limited to the awareness of another person’s pain. It is impossible to attain a state of compassion without causing an “emotional shock” in the third party, who must become aware of, understand, and feel the extent of another’s pain, even if it causes them short-term psychological pain.

In human rights, relief, and journalistic work, activists and journalists do something similar to what the researchers in Denmark did in their experiment on participants’ interactions with the story of George. One of the first steps toward achieving justice for victims is to document the violation committed against them. Then, mobilisation, lobbying, and advocacy efforts are directed at the third party (the civilian, social media follower, and/or decision-maker) to emotionally move them, paving the way for a desire to act. Because the process of lobbying and advocacy is a cumulative one that relies on using all available tools and data to achieve the greatest impact and motivate people to act, it takes advantage of one of the most simple and basic facts: human beings are emotional by nature.

For example, following the earthquake that struck Turkiye and Syria a few days ago and killed tens of thousands of people, relief organisations—along with journalists and field activists—documented and published hundreds of clips depicting the extent of human life loss and the pain felt by victims and their families. This prompted hundreds of thousands of people around the world to “practically” support victims by donating, both individually and collectively, tens of millions of dollars to the affected areas via emergency appeals launched by search and rescue teams. The vast majority of these people would not have taken out their credit cards and filled in donation forms to send money to victims if they had not experienced an “emotional shock” as a result of seeing the graphic images that were published.

Although the initial “shock” caused the third-party short-term psychological pain (longer-term effects may occur in some cases), it has resulted in support for people experiencing a genuine disaster and immense suffering on physical, psychological, and material levels. This outcome offers additional confirmation that a primary part of the process leading to assistance and redress for victims is indeed raising awareness of their pain and suffering, which can only be accomplished by encouraging consumers of media to imagine others’ pain.

Feeling the pain of victims without being able to directly help them financially or otherwise should not be a moral burden to followers or force them to flee from the knowledge that such pain exists. Certainly, not everyone can help, and it is acceptable that sometimes the only thing that can be done is to experience compassion for the victim. As Nkosi Johnson, a 12-year-old South African boy who died of AIDS after being born with HIV, put it: “Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are.”