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The world was forever changed as video footage of George Floyd made its way into the hands and psyches of people around the world. Although it galvanized communities worldwide, for Black Americans, the sight of this video wasn’t necessarily surprising. But experts say watching these types of videos can lead to vicarious trauma for some.
Over the last several years, videos of police violently — and in many cases, fatally— interacting with Black Americans have been a constant presence on social media. In 2016, when Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer, his girlfriend live streamed it on Facebook, and it was subsequently shared more than 5 million times.
Hearing Floyd say he couldn’t breathe was a painful reminder of the 2019 killing of Eric Garner, whose last words were, “I can’t breathe,” as an NYPD officer appeared to have him in a chokehold in the widely-shared video footage. The growing list of Black people being harmed by police on camera has undoubtedly led to more support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with Floyd’s murder reaching new demographics and leading to an immediate growth in the movement. But this new support comes at what cost to Black Americans?
“Viewing videos of graphic police violence against Black people undoubtedly contributed to the multiethnic support we saw last year for the Black Lives Matter movement,” Allissa Richardson, author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism and assistant professor of journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, tells Yahoo Life. “The problem with relying upon these videos to galvanize people is that the images also traumatize the very people they are trying to help. That's the Catch-22.”
According to a study called “Vicarious trauma, PTSD and social media: Does watching graphic videos cause trauma?” conducted by Pam Ramsden, an assistant professor at the U.K.’s University of Bradford, and published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, the viewing of these types of videos is leading to vicarious trauma for some. The study found that about 20 percent of people are significantly affected by the videos, and some individuals experience lasting effects such as negative stress reactions, anxiety, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorders or vicarious PTSD. Vicarious PTSD or vicarious trauma is what’s experienced when someone has a negative reaction to trauma exposure.
Activist, author, and public speaker Leon Ford was 19 years old when, in 2012, he was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Ford, who was misidentified as a suspect with a similar name, was shot five times and left paralyzed. “If I got shot on camera, I wouldn't want people to keep circulating it all across social media,” Ford tells Yahoo Life. Referring to people portrayed in other graphic videos that have circulated on social media, Ford says: “These people have children. These people have cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who can’t live a normal life...even though I don't watch those videos, I can feel that energy. When I see somebody posting, I scroll past it. It still sticks to me.”
But Ford also acknowledges that these videos can help garner support and lead to accountability. Regarding the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered Floyd, Ford says, “I agree with the fact that, maybe if there wasn't a video, this trial would have run completely different. But at the end of the day, it doesn't change the fact that we need a video, right? We need a video in America to say this is wrong.”
Richardson agrees, saying: “Black people are the only ones who are asked to prove via video that they did not deserve their own death. So, when we demand to see a video, what we are really asking for is proof that this Black person deserves our sympathy. We don't ask any other group of people to do this. Black people are the only ones who must watch themselves die repeatedly on primetime television.”
Even with video, convictions such as Chauvin’s are rare. But, according to Richardson, there are other ways to combat police brutality and help the families beyond sharing graphic videos. “Most people have a keen awareness now that police brutality exists and that it impacts Black people disproportionately. What most people do not know is how to help,” Richardson says. “On social media, it would be better to share tips on how to get involved at the local level. If you have an election coming up, for example, to re-elect a problematic sheriff, use your platform to discuss why you think they shouldn't get to continue that job. If you believe in donating to legal defense funds, share links to organizations you like. If you have it in your heart to help the children of someone who has died, share that crowdsourced funding information, or links to a family fund that a reputable attorney has started. If police have not released body cam footage to the family, create and circulate a petition.”
Richardson adds: “There are so many proactive things we can do to show support. Sharing a video is the least active of these, and, perhaps the most harmful.”
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To learn more about the role of social media, trauma and mental health:
Read Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism by Dr. Allissa V. Richardson. The book explores the lives of 15 mobile journalist-activists who have documented the Black Lives Matter movement using only their smartphones and Twitter.
Read Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healingby Dr. Joy DeGruy. The book addresses the residual impacts of generations of slavery and opens up the discussion of how the black community can use the strengths they have gained in the past to heal in the present.
Read Untold: Testimony and Guide to Overcoming Adversity by Leon Ford. Ford shares stories about his upbringing, his life changing encounter with the police that left him paralyzed, and his personal mental health journey.
Follow The WITNESS Media Lab, which develops, models, and supports innovative approaches to sourcing, verifying, and contextualizing eyewitness videos and ensuring that footage taken by average citizens can serve as an effective tool for human rights.
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