Digital PTSD is real

Journalists covering the alt-right are experiencing the debilitating effects of online harassment and violent imagery.

Digital PTSD is real

Journalists covering the alt-right are experiencing the debilitating effects of online harassment and violent imagery.

Last August, I went to Charlottesville, Virginia to cover the so-called “Unite the Right” rally. I had covered violent protests in the past and was prepared for the physical and verbal aggression that typically comes with covering the far-right on the ground. But I wasn’t prepared for the aftermath.

As two friends and I made the long drive to Virginia the day before the rally, reports began circulating of an incident involving so-called “alt-right” supporters intimidating people in a Walmart parking lot with guns. Later, we learned via Twitter that around 10 p.m., white supremacists took over the University of Virginia campus with tiki torches, attempting to intimidate the community, including counter-protestors. It became clear that this wouldn’t be a normal protest.

The next day was brutal. It was hot and it was violent. Early on Saturday, neo-Nazis and other alt-right groups marched to defend a statue of Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee in a small park. They came bearing shields, helmets, and flagpoles, and were protected by an armed right-wing militia. Police surrounded the area, some in riot gear, but they never stepped in to de-escalate the violence. As one woman told The New York Times, “There was no police. We were watching people punch each other; people were bleeding all the while police were inside of barricades at the park, watching.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a statewide state of emergency. The white supremacist rally was cancelled before its scheduled start time, and the city declared it an “unlawful assembly.”

Flowers and notes on the Charlottesville street where Heather Heyer lost her life after a car drove into a crowd full of demonstrators. 2017.

Flowers and notes on the Charlottesville street where Heather Heyer lost her life after a car drove into a crowd full of demonstrators. 2017.

At first, this felt like a win for many of the people who had come out to defend the Charlottesville community from white supremacists. We marched up Water Street alongside Black Lives Matter, Anarchists, Democratic Socialists, and the Industrial Workers of the World, celebrating, when the day took a deadly turn. Moments before James Alex Fields, Jr. allegedly drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, journalist Peter Moskowitz and I were talking about how good it felt to be there. We were less than ten feet away from the collision when Fields steered into the march. In retrospect, that’s part of what made witnessing the car attack even more horrific.

“I had no clue it would be like a fucking war zone,” Moskowitz, who also wrote about their experience for The Outline, recalled in an interview. “I was very close when that douchebag hit people.” They added: “I saw Heather Heyer die.”

Last year, the most dangerous place to be a journalist in America was at a protest.

Last year, the most dangerous place to be a journalist in America was at a protest. According to a March report released by U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, protests were home to 29 arrests and 31 known physical attacks on journalists in 2017 alone. Other attacks on press freedom included having equipment seized and searched by law enforcement, or being denied access to traditionally open government events.

Research reported by the Dart Center has shown that between 80 and 100 percent of journalists experience work-related trauma at some point in their career, and between 4 and 59 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the study, journalists exposed to “events involving death, violence, and human suffering” while covering war or natural disasters are especially at risk of trauma, though not all journalists who witness tragic events will experience PTSD.

I don’t remember much from the moments after the car drove into the crowd, although I do remember losing Peter, and how it felt like forever before an ambulance finally arrived at the scene, and a random detail from a phone call with my parents: when I told them what had happened they were sitting on the back porch with friends from out of town, eating cherry pie. Most of all, though, I remember feeling numb.

Eventually, Peter and I left and drove back home. But home didn’t really feel safe. I spent hours on the internet that night looking through photos and videos of what happened earlier that day. Part of me couldn’t believe what happened and needed to see it again.

I was diagnosed with PTSD two days after I got back from Virginia. In the weeks and months that followed, I experienced flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, dissociation, chronic body pain, and severe depression and anxiety — symptoms that interfered with my work reporting on fascists, but that were triggered by it, too. Every time I looked up photos of protesters clashing with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, or videos of the car attack, it was like I was back on that street corner. Even while reporting this story, I’ve had flashbacks to it, though they’re more manageable now.

The violent attacks that journalists and activists experience when covering the alt-right is well-documented, but what people often don't talk about is what happens after reporters return home. The trauma doesn’t simply stop once we’re back at our desks, rushing to file our stories. At a time when more and more far-right groups are mobilizing and disseminating their hateful rhetoric online, we often continue to be exposed to the same verbal attacks, intimidation, and violent imagery that we encounter IRL.

The edge of Emancipation Park after the Unite the Right rally. 2017.

The edge of Emancipation Park after the Unite the Right rally. 2017.

In a 2015 study by the British Psychological Society, 22 percent of individuals — though not journalists specifically — who repeatedly looked at violent videos or photos on social media scored high on clinical measures of PTSD. Not surprisingly, many of the journalists I spoke to for this story who have covered far-right extremism said they found it hard to return to normal life after covering these groups and digitally monitoring their activity.

Noor Al-Sibai, a staff writer at The Raw Story who covers white supremacy, Islamophobia, and D.C. politics, told me that even though she wasn’t at the “Unite the Right” rally last summer, she was impacted by online coverage of the event. After watching videos coming from Charlottesville and following first-hand accounts from local activists and journalists, Al-Sibai said she and her mother learned someone had died in the car attack. “[We] sat in a parking lot crying,” she recalled. “It was the worst case scenario.”

Over the course of the day, Al-Sibai said she followed the violent events on Facebook and Twitter, compulsively checking for updates “pretty much every 20 minutes.” Over the next week, she was doing what she described as “round the clock coverage” of the fallout. Al-Sibai said that being exposed to the neo-Nazis’ hateful speech took a toll, especially as an Arab-American woman with a Muslim upbringing. “These White Supremacists are so over the top about Jews and Muslims,” she said.

In the weeks that followed, she reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as dissociation, flashbacks to prior trauma, and recurring nightmares. “When I was on the clock, I don’t even think I could identify [the triggers],” she recalled. “It was very much a blur. I’m missing some of that time.”

"When people watch things online, people get the same results and same PTSD as if they were right there."
Dr. Pam Ramsden

According to Dr. Pam Ramsden, a lecturer of psychology at the University of Bradford who conducted the aforementioned study about viewing violent news on social media, some people don’t want to believe that online content can be detrimental to one’s mental health. But based on her research, frequent exposure to disturbing videos and photos can lead to depression, anxiety, and PTSD — even if they aren't linked to a real-life experience, as they were for me. “When people watch things online, it has the ability to be in real time,” she said. “People get the same results and same PTSD as if they were right there.”

In my case, continuously watching videos of the rally only seemed to exacerbate my body and brain’s response to the incidents of the day. My heart would start racing, my chest would tighten up, and breathing would prove difficult. Sometimes I would get so anxious that I would vomit. Usually, these episodes would culminate in a feeling of uncontrollable rage or panic, followed by periods of dissociation, an extreme defense against trauma that causes a disconnect between a person’s thoughts, memories, and body, which I also experienced in the immediate aftermath of the car attack in August.

Over the phone with The Outline, Ramsden compared the state of the brain on trauma to an overworked muscle that cramps up. “The brain has the same issue, and just wears itself out and becomes much more sensitive,” she explained. Once this happens, she added, the hippocampus — or the part of the brain at the center of emotion and memory — becomes more sensitive, and “the smallest situation can even trigger” a reaction.

Journalists and activists looking to cover far-right movements arguably have more access to them than ever before, from the thousands of leaked Discord logs released by Unicorn Riot — a decentralized, independent media collective — to social media posts on Twitter, Reddit, and Gab. Fascist groups like Patriot Front, whose members split off from Vanguard America after last summer’s rally to form a new group, and the recently dissolved Traditionalist Worker Party often chat and organize on forums like Discord. But that greater access can also entail regular exposure to violent and hateful content.

“You dig through [Discord logs] for hours and hours and spend a lot of time seeing what they say, and watching them formulate plans, and the weird, sick jokes they make online,” said freelance journalist Elizabeth King. “Seeing them in real life or knowing you will because you cover them, it’s super jarring.”

While reading up on the alt-right for an upcoming book about fascism and free speech, Moskowitz remembered coming across some particularly violent and triggering conversations online. “I was trying to do research on how the alt-right was trying to frame Charlottesville and was seeing pictures of Heather Heyer’s body and people making fun of her weight,” Moskowitz said. “To see what was so traumatic for me be turned into a joke and a fat-shaming session was like ‘Wow, really no one cares.’”

Chris Schiano — a reporter with Unicorn Riot who covered the Tiki torch march on UVA’s campus — also worked on the Discord leaks. Schiano’s work involved going through all the messages to redact anything that targeted specific people before publishing, and reporting on the details of the discussions taking place on the app.

Speaking with The Outline, he recalled that going through the violent logs was stressful — even though, as a white man, he knew he wasn’t a target of these groups. “I think my ability to be cool and keep doing it is a level of privilege,” Schiano said. Still, he said that he avoided violent content of the night of the torch march, where he was concerned for his safety. “I’ve had to re-watch it at other points in my own work,” he said. “It wasn’t until a month ago this year that I went back and watched the stream. I still need to process more of it.”

Moskowitz said they also mostly tried to avoid graphic content of the rally after they came home. “I inadvertently saw Charlottesville footage, and looked at some pictures,” they said. “I saw a picture of myself, too, that made me realize how close I was. I realized I needed to avoid this.”

Trying to avoid exposure to such traumatic triggers — not just while monitoring the far right's movements, but also while reading mainstream publications — has caused Moskowitz to reorient their relationship with the news. “The media industry has such a problem with trauma porn,” they said. “I really can’t be engaged in politics in the same way, including online.”

"Intimidation online is the same as real life."
Dr. Pam Ramsden

About a month after “Unite the Right,” I started receiving mentions on Twitter from people affiliated with Patriot Front. After I replied to a series of tweets from another journalist detailing Patriot Front members terrorizing an Anarchist book fair in Houston, Twitter users with the group’s logos and propaganda on their profiles had found me online.

In various tweets, I was told it was “too bad” the Dodge didn’t hit me over the summer, and was sexually harassed. After writing an article for VICE about the misogyny foundational to white supremacist movements, the harassment continued. Some people suggested that I should be raped; others insulted my appearance, or suggested that because I am a woman, I was property. While this misogynistic onslaught was exhausting and overwhelming at times, the most triggering harassment came from people who were aware that I had witnessed the car attack, and wanted to joke about it.

For many journalists, covering the far-right doesn’t just mean exposure to disturbing imagery. It can also entail becoming a direct target of harassment. Last month, a list of supposed anti-fascists in Charlottesville compiled by a Neo-Nazi was released online. The list, which appeared to be released for the purpose of intimidation and harassment, included the names of 650 people. Various journalists ended up on the list, including myself, Moskowitz, and Schiano. Finding my name on it was immediately jarring, and made me concerned about my ability to cover protests on the ground.

Journalist Michael Edison Hayden, who covers the far-right for Newsweek, told me via email that he received a significant amount of backlash after publishing a story about Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, one of the figures behind the white supremacist website the Daily Stormer. After his article came out, Hayden was doxxed, with white supremacists publishing his family members’ private information online.

“My parent’s address was published on the comment section of Daily Stormer's website by anonymous people,” Hayden wrote in an email. “People discussed attacking them in retribution. They mentioned that it was my father's 72nd birthday, and that someone should give him a birthday present. They talked about throwing a molotov cocktail through the window. I had to ultimately file a police report, and the police installed cameras around the house and a switch in my parent's bedroom to summon cops.” Describing how it felt to watch his family experience this in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Hayden said, “There's a tremendous amount of guilt."

Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters, an organization that offers support to journalists experiencing online abuse. "Online harassment or online abuse can lead to emotional, psychological, and professional harm,” Ferrier told The Outline. “The persistent and consistent exposure to harmful messages does lead to psychological effects. If journalists do not receive the support and control they need, the harm can lead to PTSD.”

Of course, online harassment and its effects are not limited to journalists. According to a study by the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, 47 percent of Americans have experienced some form of harassment or abuse on the internet, including name-calling, physical threats, stalking, and doxxing.

A tarp covering the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville's Emancipation Park after the Unite the Right rally. 2017.

A tarp covering the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville's Emancipation Park after the Unite the Right rally. 2017.

When it comes to online abuse, women may be especially at risk. In a 2014 study, the Pew Research Center found that young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment online, and also experience online stalking at disproportionately high levels. Black people and people of color are also especially at risk: A 2017 study found that one in four black Americans reported being targets of online harassment specifically because of their race, with types of abuse ranging from being called offensive names to being purposely embarrassed online.

According to Elisa Muñoz, the Executive Director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, these dynamics apply to journalists as well. “All journalists are being harassed online,” she said. “But the level and kind of harassment that [women and people of color] are receiving is different and very personal.”

Journalists from communities that are targets of fascist groups can be particularly at risk for harassment — both online and on the ground. As Gary Younge, editor-at-large at The Guardian, recalled in an interview with On The Media in March, “Black journalists are more likely to have had experiences of racist bigotry, and so the cost of indulging [people like Richard Spencer] is different.”

Anna Merlan, a Jewish journalist who writes for Gizmodo’s Special Projects Desk, told me that the first time she interviewed a Neo-Nazi, she was mostly “surprised by the depths of their ignorance and what they would say” to her. Allowing them to spread misinformation was not something she would allow, however. Merlan said that while covering Neo-Nazis, she has felt obligated to tell them she was Jewish. “I let them know when they say something that’s not true,” she said.

The Raw Story’s Al-Sibai said that in the course of her work covering the alt-right over the past two years, her personal information was once found and shared by right-wing trolls in a body-shaming Reddit thread. “They found my OKCupid and were saying I looked like I photoshopped myself,” she said.

“When I first learned about the r/FatPeopleHate thread about me, it was honestly more devastating than others because rather than finding out about it myself, I was alerted to it by someone else,” Al-Sibai said. “I was driving when a friend texted me about it, and I definitely had to pull over because I started having a panic attack about it.”

As many journalists I spoke to expressed to me, when you’re writing about the far-right in 2018, it’s easy to find yourself in a kind of catch-22: you have to be online to do your work, but the more of an online presence you might have, the more likely trolls are to glom on.

“Intimidation online is the same as real life,” Dr. Ramsden explained. “It’s not that different, except that it has more of an impact because we’re on our phones a lot, and so when people are very active and finding you online, it’s hard to escape. The scary part is, how far will they take it?”

"I don’t do Nazi reporting as much anymore is because I don’t want to have to hide part of who I am."
Peter Moskowitz

After the events in Charlottesville, my immediate response was to get back to covering these violent movements, because I didn’t want to feel that I’d lost my ability to do my job. Journalists are exposed to violence all the time and continue doing their jobs, I thought — so why couldn’t I? Often, I’d get to the end of the day and drink too much, rather than take a break from my work.

Al-Sibai told me she’s had a similar response to her trauma. “Especially in this job, I find myself drinking more than I want to. It’s not a great coping mechanism,” she said.

According to Muñoz from The International Women’s Media Foundation, the organization is “really worried” about the burden of trauma that journalists often have to carry alone. To that end, she said the IWMF is working on compiling recommendations for individual journalists and the outlets they work for to pre-empt some of the trauma that comes with online work. They’re also working on developing ways that the industry can better support journalists, including offering digital resources for better cybersecurity and reporting options for harassment before and after publishing a story.

In an ideal world, Muñoz explained, “You don't feel alone, and you feel like people have your back, and that you're not out there facing this barrage by yourself.”

Sadly, the culture of the industry hasn’t caught up with the need for trauma awareness. As journalist Mac McClelland told the Huffington Post, talking to her colleagues about her own PTSD would leave her feeling like others thought she was “weak and vulnerable.”

To minimize harm to reporters, editors and journalists alike need to acknowledge the risks that come with reporting specific stories, and create more space for discussing them.

According to Muñoz, reporters who become targets of online abuse sometimes report that the anticipation of harassment alone can “change the way [they] work online, including what they choose to report and how they choose to report it.” For some, this means avoiding covering the far-right altogether. “A lot of the reason I don’t do Nazi reporting as much anymore is because I don’t want to have to hide part of who I am, like not paint my nails in order to not get harassed," Moskowitz said.

For those journalists who do continue to do this work, Merlan explained, it’s important to prepare for the potentially traumatic impacts of covering violence on the ground and online. “I encourage people to know about trauma, how it can affect you, and how being a target of hate can feel, and to be ready for it,” she said.

In the months since “Unite the Right,” I’ve had to work on putting my mental health first. I’ve made a conscious decision to take a break from attending and covering protests, and to limit my exposure to particularly graphic content online. Most importantly, recovery has meant accepting the reality that putting my sense of safety and my health first is OK — and that contrary to what I’d learned from colleagues in the past, journalists don’t always need to be tough.

“Journalism allows you to feel like you’re removed from things but you’re still there, still a person, still affected,” Moskowitz said. “To realize I need to take time out of my day for mental health, to be depressed, cry, have a panic attack — it’s a huge and ongoing learning experience. [Learning] that I’m not invincible.”