Researchers who study online terrorism and political violence face a broad spectrum of risks to their safety and wellbeing. Awareness of the challenges researchers face in this subdiscipline has remained relatively low for years. Since the launch of Islamic State’s propaganda campaign on the internet, which skilfully deployed scenes of death and dying to influence online audiences, that awareness has increased. Subsequently, some researchers have reported that prolonged exposure to terrorist content can be harmful across many wellbeing dimensions.
This research project aims to determine if exposure to terrorist propaganda may be a factor in causing trauma for researchers or their development of mood disorders. Our study is founded on two research methods: an online survey and a novel experiment. The online survey was completed by a group of recognised terrorism researchers who were asked about their opinions and experiences related to the impact of their research activities on mental health. The experiment used a biofeedback device and an eye-tracker to measure the short-term psychophysiological response of researchers to ordinary content available on the internet (Control Group) and certain types of terrorist propaganda (Experimental Group). The reactions of both groups, primarily their eye fixation and skin conductance, were subsequently compared.
- We found that most surveyed terrorism researchers have experienced mental harms from exposure to violent extremist content at least once in their careers. There is a broad spectrum of reactions they have experienced. Terrorist propaganda frequently triggers sadness, irritation, anger and fear. Problems with concentration, headaches, dreams related to the analysed content or even memory loss are also quite common. Many of these reactions are considered symptoms of trauma or mood disorders. However, the most severe, trauma-related effects are less frequent than milder adverse psychological reactions.
- Scenes of death and dying, expressions of extreme, raw emotions and the suffering of civilian populations are potentially the most harmful types of violent extremist content for the mental health of researchers.
- Researchers with significant experience in terrorism studies are usually more aware of the risks involved in viewing terrorist content.
Compared to junior researchers, senior researchers are more careful in how they approach such content.
- Our experiment indicates that the short-term attention of terrorism researchers is drawn mainly to faces, logotypes, text and objects located at the centre of the screen. Researchers also primarily concentrate their gaze on the gore content, namely the faces of victims, injuries and blood, whenever they are displayed on the screen. This tendency opens promising solutions to mitigate the risk of trauma.
- Our biofeedback data shows that the Experimental Group exposed to terrorist content manifests stronger compensatory mechanisms, expressed through greater emotional instability, than the Control Group consuming ordinary internet releases. It may have significant importance for the coping processes of terrorism researchers.
- Most surveyed terrorism researchers have never been supported by their employing institutions to reduce the risks to their mental health. There is an urgent need to introduce new standards and policies in academia to protect researchers’ wellbeing better.
Such policies might include, among others, improvements in the working culture at universities, the availability of mental health counsellors and the organisation of awareness-raising training for junior researchers.
- Introducing new procedures in analysing terrorist content, including mutual supervision, working in teams, emotional reset methods and the development of the habit of looking away from the most challenging visual stimuli, may help to reduce potential risks to researchers. Designing effective cognitive schemas strictly for viewing emotionally challenging content can help to compartmentalise this professional experience as an element separate from the researcher’s identity as a human being.
- Humour, selective attention, reducing screen time, taking breaks and adopting an analytical mindset are among the most promising coping strategies reported by our respondents. However, their efficiency is dependent on multiple factors. No single method works for all.