The Psychological Strains of Digital Activism

Iran's Green Movement began in 2009 when citizen groups accused government officials of altering outcomes in national elections. Citizens and activists gathered in the streets to protest and also relied on social networks such as Twitter to disseminate their message and coordinate action. When the government sought to control media reports of what was happening inside the country, activists used tools for circumventing blocked websites and sharing content for broader distribution to the world, often with help from supporters in other parts of the world.

This marked one of the first large-scale movements where new media served as a platform for coordination and communication between activists and played a vital role in showing the world what was happening on the ground. The following narrative comes from Cameran Ashraf, an Iranian-American citizen living in the United States who helped facilitate communication and information exchange for activists and protesters during this period.

Green Movement demonstration in Iran, 2009. Photo by Jeff McNeill. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Green Movement demonstration in Iran, 2009. Photo by Jeff McNeill. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

My blog has remained silent for quite some time. The reasons lie in the post I am about to write.

From 2009-2011 I played a pivotal role on the Internet side of the Iranian Green Movement. This brought me many opportunities, such as co-founding AccessNow, media attention (including from the Iranian government), and deep connections with like-minded individuals. It helped me frame my passions and desire to do good in the world, to understand a lot about who I was and how I saw the world. It was also psychologically devastating and something I am still coming to grips with.

There are different kinds of digital activists. Some focus on Twitter or spreading information. Others mobilize support on Facebook. A few make posters, motivational videos, or leverage other talents.  Some, and I include myself in this class, provide direct technological support to movements and activists in-country. Our team provided secured hosting to dozens of key websites, supported key reporters and activists in-country, and I facilitated more than 3 million video downloads from inside Iran, amongst other activities. I was on call 24-hours a day from 2009-2011 and can only rarely recall more than 4 hours of sleep a night.

If it sounds as if I am bragging or inflating myself, I am not – this is part of the healing process and part of coming to terms with feelings of not doing enough, not helping enough, and not being enough. There is something to geographically distant material engagement which pushes ones feelings to the margins, to the point where your body lives on the time in another land and the only thing motivating you is the pureness of help itself.

While much is made of digital activism and the ability afforded us by the Internet to help, little is made of its costs on those who do help. Because of one's extreme virtual proximity, intense feelings of inadequacy and of “not doing enough” emerge. You're doing what you can, to the detriment of your own health – the people you support and whose digital security depends on you are there facing all of the risks you experience by proxy. You recognize the seriousness yet at the same time the absurdity, as even mundane annoyances, such as being stuck in traffic, become extraordinary moments where you see what is “truly important” in the world. Constantly focusing on what is “truly important” means you often neglect the mundane side of what is “truly important” – your mental health, relationships with family and friends, and fun time to relax. The pleasure of normal conversations, the absurdities of daily life, the sun, stars, hugs, all slowly dissolve as you begin to live the crisis and realities of others thousands of miles away. Those anxieties become internalized and externalized in anger, irritation, lashing out – all of which I did.

It is “the cause,” after all. That movement which will make the world right, which will correct the horrific injustices you were privy to on a daily basis. It will avenge the friends arrested, tortured, or killed. You live, breathe, eat, feel, touch, anything related to it. The moments away from the computer are engaged in phone calls, texts, or in-person meetings and events. My body was in Los Angeles, but my mind was in Iran.

Being so connected to something you are disconnected from is, I believe, deeply disturbing to your psyche. Sooner or later things make sense and your mind realizes it's been seeing and reading one thing and living another. At that moment it just happens – you “go dark”. Vanish. I didn't tell anyone. I stopped replying to emails, texts, and phone calls. It was a complete breakdown from which I am still recovering. To this day I turn my cellphone face-down and keep it permanently on silent as I associate much trauma and bad news with it.

I sat silent for a year, seeing a therapist but keeping everything inside. The few individuals I confided in could only distantly try to understand, in the sort of way we empathize with someone who has lost a loved one while we are still whole. Though I didn't realize it at the time, a good friend and important activist told me four words which would slowly embed themselves within me: You did your part.

That was it. You did your part. I kept repeating those words – you did your part – day and night. It was my own Green Movement – one which stood up for myself. It was right, but it was not an epiphany. It did not cure me or bring me closure. What it did was open up a door for me to see what I did and to realize that it was what I could do based on where I was. I had done my part. I had answered the question which I had asked myself in June 2009: What will you say if your children ask you what you did when Iranians came to the streets? I could answer this now, as if I hadn't known all along: I did my part. I could remain engaged with digital activism, but in manageable ways which honor the causes I support as well as myself.

Each digital activist involved with in-country activists will encounter the stresses differently. The trauma of crisis at a distance will speak to their psychology in a unique way with unique repercussions. This is a different yet still heroic side of digital activism, far removed and hidden from the ideals of privacy, security, democracy, and human rights. It is a personal heroism which only a few see and only one person feels.

I have briefly shared my own story as a means to open a real dialogue on mental health and digital activism – something I wish I had done much sooner and which should be part of any activist toolkit and training. Each digital activist will ultimately have their own story, their own confession which allows them continue down the path to a sense of personal normalcy and wholeness. This is the start of mine.

30 comments

  • Anat

    Thank you, Cameran, for an inspiring blog post. You have not done your part, yet, so it seems. Writing so openly and bravely about this, as you wrote, is a beginning of a new and very important part.

    I admire your work and sincerity

  • Thanks for writing this. I read somewhere that drone pilots stationed in the US, but operating drones in Afghanistan or Iraq or somewhere else, thousands of miles away, have higher rates of PTSD than soldiers who serve in country. Something about the jarring nature of leaving an office where things are life and death and going from there to the parents and teachers meeting to discuss what brand of cheese to put on the children’s lunches.

    The story popped into my head when I was reading this. I hope it is of some interest.

  • Cameran, thank you for your candid, brave writing, as well for your work with AccessNow.

    On our journey for digital activism, I know that many within the crisismappers community have felt and discussed these feelings:

    “Do something”, “Not doing enough”.

    Personally, I have been on a roller coaster of response and recovery since the Haiti earthquake. Now that I work at Ushahidi people often ask me “what am I doing about x situation”, “can I help map x situation”. While I want to help train and support everyone for every topic, there is a line where I need to “do something” for me. It is an exhausting cycle which I work hard to balance.

    We are at the beginning of a huge shift of online /offline. I know that many will stand to these efforts. All we can do is lift them up safely and guide them as they activate change.

    The Standby Task Force actually has an empathy coach. She and a trained Emergency Manager from LA helped me after the Libya map. This community is working to ensure that we are paired with co-mappers and that we check in with each other. It is beautiful, but new ground.

    I truly wish you well on your journey. Happy to talk with you,

    Heather

  • Rebecca Williams

    Thank you for this post. I was very involved in the recovery of Joplin, Missouri. I felt that I had no right to feel traumatized because I was sitting behind a computer screen using a keyboard.
    Thank you for legitimizing my feelings.

  • Svend-Jonas

    Dear Cameran,

    Thank you for your sincere blogpost! First of all I would like to express my compassion with what you wrote. I do sometimes feel overwhelmed by what I experience in engaging for Digital Humanitarism – but by reading what you have been through – I simply get quiet immediately with my complaints.

    You bring up a truly important and for long time ignored issue by many groups and individuals. Ans this sentence moved me a lot because it expresses very well what can happen to Digital Activists:

    “At that moment it just happens – you “go dark”. Vanish.”

    I would like to point to a recently published blogpost from our Community, the Standby Task Force. What happened to us truly was terrifying and we have learned a lot!

    http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/for-eliana/

    What Heather describes above is new ground, but definitely needed.

    All my best to you!
    Svend-Jonas

  • Hey ya’ll, thanks for bringing this subject to light. its a subject few want to discuss.

    I am Leesa Astredo, Team Lead for the Empathy Team with Standby Task Force and co-creator of http://www.emsafespace.org and co-founder of http://www.info4disasters.org
    Cameran, sharing your heart and your story is your first step to recovery. You WILL get better, most of us do, but its not easy. Having a support group, which is lacking, is fundamental to say the least.

    I too suffer the PTSD of digital response work, many do, but we don’t recoginize it for what it is.

    We think that “just” helping online, whether it be tweeting, posting to FB or mapping, we can’t suffer as those on the ground do… FALSE! We do suffer, as much and perhaps more than those on the ground. Why more than those on the ground, you ask? They have a support group, their feelings and thoughts are validated by the many who came before them. Many orgs have debriefing and mental health experts on the ground to help those returning, RETURNING, from deployments.
    The digital field of response is still young. We don’t have the past experiance and programs set up to deal with our kind of PTSD. We don’t always recognize it for what it is and neither does anyone else. If we told “outsiders” how we feel when “all” we do is respond via a computer, they often think we are overreacting, being dramatic, even crazy.

    So what can we do? While this area is still new, I am fortunate enough to work with some awesome folks in the digital response field. We have formed a community where digital responders and EM can go to be with folks who may feel exactly as we do. Please check it out at http://www.emsafespace.org. Its an area being created to help us find some answers amongst ourselves. How can I feel better? Why do I feel this way? Am I the only one?

    Not trying to self promote here. We are all seeking an answer to our unique concerns and where to find help. Please take a look and let me know what you think. lastredo@att.net Thank you for all you do for our world! HUGS to all of you!

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  • Cameran,

    Thank you so much for sharing this. All I can say is: I share in your struggle. A few years ago, I was in touch with Omidreza Mirsayafi (for others reading: An Iranian blogger who died in prison not long after he was detained, possibly by suicide). He contacted me frequently, often interrupting me during work, and though we would chat often, I would sometimes ignore his more mundane IMs. A few days after ignoring one, I heard he was arrested. Not long after that, I heard he had died.

    I still feel immense guilt over that, even though I know, cognitively, there wasn’t a whole lot I could have actually done. But I know I could’ve at least been a better friend.

    This can be a very stressful “field” (it doesn’t even feel right calling it that) with very few support mechanisms, and a lot of public pressure. I’ve been thinking for awhile that we need better support mechanisms in place. You’ve reminded me again that that’s true.

    Stay strong,
    Jillian

  • Lisa Doherty

    I have to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this unveiling. Although I won’t even try to claim to have done as much as you have, on a smaller scale I do understand. I have shut down for short periods myself as a result of frustration and anger at what I can’t do. My family and friends don’t understand my passion about things that happen in other countries that cause me pain. I have been in counseling for three years now and I know that has helped me keep my perspective at times. If you are like me we will always do our part and hope that together we will make a difference that lasts. You have done so much, be kind to yourself. Much love and understanding.

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