Academic research into terrorism and online radicalisation has spiked in recent years, arguably caused, in part, by the rise of Islamic State (IS). IS stresses the importance of media mujahideen and then relies on them to convey propaganda messages. These then proliferate in the form of hundreds of videos and photographs containing graphic violence. The resulting demands on the research community to collect and interpret this data can be unprecedented. Many – myself included – get invitations to present our results, not only in academic journals but also to international organisations, peace-building initiatives, and the security sector. This includes the highest level of international governance. However, in this line of work, risks and an underlying concern about the personal consequences of researching extremism online can occur.
There are studies that have been undertaken on the emotional aspects and distress following continuous exposure to violent imagery, not least focusing on certain professions such as content moderators or journalists. However, the consequences of academics undertaking image and/or video analysis of jihadist graphic material are yet to be fully explored. There is a need for more academic research on these experiences, as well as evaluating the existence (or non-existent) support systems in the individual researcher’s professional environment. One of the main reasons for a lack of deeper understanding of the personal and emotional impact on researchers is that the job of monitoring and repeatedly exposing oneself to scenes of torture tends to make it difficult for individuals to reflect on the experience. This touches on the concept of ‘vicarious trauma’, particularly in efforts to grasp the social and emotional cost of this work. By admitting and normalising the discourse around it, with established frameworks from other disciplines, there is a path forward. According to the American Counseling Association, vicarious trauma stems from practitioners such as therapists or councilors, being exposed to stories and experiences from survivors of first-hand trauma, thereby witnessing of the pain of others.
This can – and should – be added to the results of in-depth qualitative research on extremism and mediated violence: a field of interest more relevant than ever since IS’s notorious representations of violence first spread around the world.
From a personal viewpoint, after more than six years of monitoring of IS channels, forums and groups online; collecting data; and conducting qualitative visual analysis of extremist violence has unfortunately resulted in a pessimistic, cynical and dark view on the world. I have experienced a loss of hope for humanity and an indifference to the most emotional considerations of daily life. The work of surveilling and exposing oneself to extremist propaganda, in this case including child abuse, rape, torture and executions, involves a particular form of vicarious trauma with long-term consequences which impact both loved ones and communities as a whole.
Strategies to cope with these issues have been discussed within the academic community. However, we are still at a stage where a lack of strategic support systems has ongoing consequences beyond the individual researcher’s well-being. Universities and research projects must find common ground in their efforts to develop cohesive support systems, while also encouraging research on politically and emotionally distressing issues by allocating resources to protect mental health.
In addition to this, support systems also need to consider the physical and online security of the researcher. Just as individuals within extremist networks take measures to avoid detection, so must analysts, researchers and intelligence officers. However, collecting data and monitoring extremist channels on an encrypted platform always carries risks, especially as academic practitioners. Ethics frameworks exist to protect originality and quality in the research process, yet the personal safety of researchers in this process still appears to be a secondary consideration. From my own experience, I have noticed a significant lack of precautionary measures taken by academic institutions. Of course, monitoring and collecting data in extremist forums comes with inherent risks, but there can also be an emotional experience stemming from the fear of being detected by the individuals being observed.
This reflection is not meant to evoke pessimistic feelings about a fascinating and essential research field, such as extremism and technology. Nevertheless, instead, it should encourage researchers to collectively work towards promoting and enhancing individual mental health.