This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).
Conversations about researchers’ mental health in terrorism studies and adjacent fields have been growing – particularly concerning the aspect of exposure to violent content in online spaces. In his GNET article, Michael Krona discussed the importance of “normalising the discourse” about ‘vicarious trauma’ and the “emotional cost of this work.” He also identified the need for further academic research on researchers’ own experiences with viewing harmful content and a framework to implement or evaluate support systems. Hannah Allam interviewed numerous extremism researchers who shared how their work had affected them and how potential factors may promote a “culture of silence” around more openly discussing these issues including certain levels of guilt, detachment, and pressure to keep up with the field’s growing pace. As demonstrated by these important insights, there are potentially harmful elements that researchers working in this field face.
Researchers who are women, people of colour, Queer, and/or hold other marginalised identities, however, additionally encounter structural barriers. Such barriers include a lack of representation, having their voices ignored or dismissed, being taken less seriously as a researcher, working without safety protocols in place when threatened by far-right actors for example, and facing racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice within the field itself. Studies on researcher mental health are sparse, but research on women of colour (among other marginalised identities) in terrorism studies is nearly nonexistent.
The process of studying extremism often entails reading propaganda, wading through online chats filled with bigotry, and viewing violent imagery. For women researchers of colour, this often means encountering dehumanising content about their intersecting identities. In efforts to both encourage and contribute to conversations focused on the experiences of marginalised researchers, this article draws on insights shared by self-identifying WoC working in the terrorism studies space who generously shared their time and thoughts. These women come from a variety of backgrounds as students, journalists, independent researchers, and researchers at non-academic institutions. Their work focuses include Salafi-jihadism, far-right groups, white supremacism, incels, Christian nationalism, human rights, conspiracy theories, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and homeland security.
In attempts to capture a holistic overview of these experiences and centre WoC researcher voices, direct quotes from interviewees are featured under the wider context of the following themes: the impact of violent content on WoC researchers over time and self-regulation; the impact of one’s own identity on researcher experience and encountering prejudice in the field; and support mechanisms including specific advice for tech companies to better support WoC researchers. To protect the privacy of the interviewees and with their consent, the responses have been anonymised.
Impact on Researchers Over Time and Self-Regulation
When first observing extremist online communities, the WoC researcher interviewees described experiencing an array of emotions ranging from excitement to intrigue to pain.
“When I first began observing extremist online content, I was shocked and amazed at the rhetoric used by individuals and groups to promote violence to advance their social or political cause.”
“It almost felt exciting at first to dig through content, and almost like I was shedding light on issues that were impacting communities of people that will hopefully make the status quo care enough to do something. But somewhere along the way the world in and outside of research starts looking like a scary place. I did remember feeling out of place in my workplace because of my response to it.”
“Initially, I was fascinated by the access to the information that I got. I could just spend 5 to 7 hours a day hunting for new channels and then later it came to narrowing down my focus on channels that would provide relevant data.”
“[I experienced] a lot of fear and a lot of anger. They don’t know me, but they’re willing to hate people like me for no reason, so it sparked a lot of pain.”
Over time, however, many interviewees stated how they became increasingly desensitised to extremist content, while others felt a build-up of anxiety, depressed moods, and a lasting impact on their views of the world after observing the vitriol disseminated from online extremist milieus.
“I could only stomach it for so long. I always tried not to click on super violent, derogatory, hateful, etc. content, but even then I knew it wasn’t for me for the long run. I was super sad and depressed before long. I think when we see people that treat each other badly, it changes us as human beings regardless of the format that information comes (video, text, audio).”
“As I view it more and more often, I have started to become desensitized. I still get anxious seeing some content progress into more violent rhetoric.”
“I think I’ve become a lot more numb to it, and that I can tune it out easier. I don’t see it influencing me as much, but I do still feel the sadness at times that such hatred exists, but also frustration that instead of being tackled, it is being pushed further, especially online.”
“I’ve begun feeling more and more numb to it, but there will be moments where something catches me off-guard (a specific trigger) and it makes me overwhelmed with confusion and horror. It’s a pattern that has never truly resolved itself.”
“I realised I was heavily procrastinating on certain things – like analysing source material that depicted violence or reading descriptions of violence in the literature.”
This is where self-regulating exposure to such content became a crucial factor. Importantly, the WoC researchers shared how they were able to recognise certain signs indicating that they needed to step away. Indicators took the form of feeling a sense of information overload preventing the ability to process new information, experiencing heightened or new fears, ruminating on the extremist content itself, and or being desensitised. It also included “becoming obsessive” such as being unable to pull away from monitoring online chats, losing track of time while hyper-focusing on reading propaganda outputs or feeling immense pressure to collect as much data as possible around the clock. The ways in which interviewees disconnected from this continuous exposure to extremist content included taking a break for several days, incorporating built-in habitual breaks as a pre-emptive form of mental health care, and finding joy in non-research-related activities such as focusing on other interests in their lives, reading fiction, or cooking.
Another form of self-regulation and establishing important healthy boundaries comprised distancing oneself from specific subject matters that the individual felt would be particularly upsetting.
“I avoid researching themes or material that I know are violence-centric, especially towards women.”
“[I distance myself from] anything that centres on excessive violence is usually a no for me. Depending on the task, client, project, etc. I try to find some wiggle room to tone down or reframe as much as possible, but not a lot comes second to my mental health and wellbeing anymore.”
“Exploitation of children, climate change-related issues, and sexual assault. These evoke a really strong negative emotion from me for reasons I can’t really explain.”
“I try to stay away from anti-semitic work actually. As a black woman, I’ve found it difficult to broach the space because it is sometimes really tricky to have those conversations because there are at times an underlying assumption that Black people are anti-semitic. I’ve never known how to really get around this because I can’t change people’s minds, so I try to just say away and avoid the controversy.”
The Impact of One’s Own Identity on Researcher Experience and Encountering Prejudice in the Field
As Maura Conway highlighted in her study, researchers’ identities can exacerbate “both the negative security and privacy implications and mental and emotional wellbeing issues associated with their research…” It is a fact that one’s identity/identities can increase the possibility of them becoming the target of “online hate and harassment than others.” In addition to the issue of being disproportionately targeted by extremists, WoC researchers discussed receiving ire from colleagues, being treated unfairly by institutions, being overlooked for positions in the field despite their credentials, and experiencing sexual harassment. The lack of representation of both PoC and women in addition to the American- and Eurocentric nature of the field also pose further hurdles.
“It [the experience of being a woman of colour in the field] has been awful. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. People in this field are generally white and privileged. The ones leading in this field tend to be even more so. There is a sense of entitlement that comes with that at times, and women of colour along with other marginalized individuals get the brunt of that on a daily basis. There are plenty of white folks in this field that either hate us for existing, fetishize us, and/or want to do us real harm… I worry for the young women of colour that are coming up in this field because I spend all my 20s and a part of my 30s trying to survive in this context and find where I belong. While the world feels a bit more inclusive than it used to be in some ways, we still have a long way to go in how this field treats women of colour.”
“The dearth of presence of women in leadership positions as professors, and scholars in this field bothers me as I have struggled to find the right mentors in this field.”
“I believe that my identity as a woman and a person of colour has impacted my experience in the field through not being considered for certain positions and not feeling welcomed in certain spaces.”
“During my internship programme at an institution, I was shocked to see a lack of women’s representation in this field. There are no female researchers in the leadership positions there or serving as analysts or so. The lack of gender disparity is depressing and I don’t have any female professors or mentors to talk to regarding the ethical dilemmas/ or guidance they could have provided with their subject matter expertise. I have found the right people to talk/to and seek guidance from some outstanding female CT researchers in the field from the USA and Europe but the state of academia is depressing here. [Other researchers] from my country like me remain underrepresented in this field.”
“I was the only analyst on the team who was a person of colour. All other people of colour who would come into the office were custodial staff. Mentally, it significantly damaged me to see the unfairness of it all…Every day was filled with racism, xenophobia, sexism, you name it. Whenever people of colour were murdered due to extremism, I would be assigned on working on our response to it. It didn’t matter if I was not from the same community, it just somehow always landed on my desk. There was also a predatory individual that many of the women on our team, including myself, had to work with.”
“I have observed a significant amount of gatekeeping from mostly Western academics within this field. There are tight research clusters and people tend to stay within them for research collaborations. I’ve observed that projects do not exclude early career researchers, but it does disadvantage them significantly, because they are often tasked with much of the heavy lifting in terms of extracting, collecting, and organising the data.”
The layered nature of societal, institutional, and field-specific barriers reveals the unique set of complex gendered and racial circumstances that WoC are often forced to navigate. These candid accounts shared by the interviewees speak to realities they face that are too frequently overlooked, ignored, dismissed, or even weaponised against them.
Support Mechanisms and Advice for Tech Companies to Better Support WoC Researchers
Previous work focusing on researcher safety suggests a number of measures that can be enacted:
- Peer-support programs
- Continuing research on trauma and vicarious trauma
- Preparatory training informing new researchers on what the work will entail before they enter online extremist spaces or encounter extremist content
- Partnering with psychologists and other mental health experts to guide debriefs, voluntary mental health group processing, etc.
- Cross-disciplinary sharing (formally and informally) of best practices and tips on how to process violent content
- Developing tailored guidelines
- Having tech companies establish separate mechanisms to respond to concerns expressed by journalists, researchers, and others tracking online extremist activities more efficiently [suggestion from interviewee]
- Networks of support created specifically by women of colour that focus on including women of colour and uplifting their voices
The following are recommendations regarding creating stronger support mechanisms and guidelines for tech companies to better protect WoC researchers as suggested by the interviewees:
- Understanding the unique set of risks that women of colour face in online spaces such as racist and misogynist personal attacks to inform solutions to better protect WoC researchers
- Establishing official avenues for women across countries to connect with one another
- Creating more opportunities for researchers of colour to connect with and support one another
- Establishing mentorship avenues for WoC entering the field and facilitating their ability to connect with junior and senior WoC researchers
- Offering basic online safety training for anyone monitoring virtual extremist spaces
- Receiving active support from allies in the terrorism research space who may have privileges and access that WoC do not
- In addition to mental health support, having universities show that they are not afraid to take a stand to protect their researchers
- Cease hiring/promoting individuals who engage in unethical behaviour and enact a system of consequences for individuals who display abusive behaviour
- Having tech companies take their reporting seriously and understand that racialised misogyny is in a category of its own
- Several interviewees shared how their reports regarding online racist and sexist harassment were not taken seriously by tech companies
- Having tech companies clearly stating, as well as enacting, a no-tolerance policy for hateful speech and rhetoric targeting women of colour
There remains a crucial need to continue discussions and studies focusing on mental health, researcher safety, and more specifically, the experiences of and barriers encountered by researchers from marginalised identities. Contrary to some sentiments that such discussions are too insular or naval-gazing on the part of the terrorism studies community, having an internal dialogue surrounding these topics is critical in a number of ways: it forces us to be critically reflective about what we have been doing both well and not-so-well; it requires us to ask ourselves how we can make the field more welcoming, safer, and inclusive for one another and new researchers entering the field; it reminds us that our own life experiences and the ways in which we are perceived directly impact our research; and finally, it is a way in which hold ourselves, each other, and the field accountable.
This Insight focused on the experiences of WoC working in the terrorism studies space and, with all credit due to the women who shared their stories, sought to highlight issues that often go unnoticed on a more general level within the field or are intentionally pushed aside. It is important to state that such conversations are not new to WoC researchers, but only now is the wider terrorism studies field beginning to become more aware of the realities faced by women of colour. On a final note, there is much work to be done but recognising and valuing diversity in the field (including race and gender diversity but also extending to other identities, perspectives, and experiences) while also providing supportive environments are important steps forwards.