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Handle Traumatic Content

Distressing or abusive user-submitted material, whether as imagery or commentary, can inflict long- or short-term trauma on those exposed to it. It’s a real issue faced by many online communities. Learning how to manage it ahead of time will help reduce the impact of its poison.

It can affect a moderator who is constantly removing misogynist material, and a community member who is reacting in real time to a personal tragedy. Sometimes it is caused by people deliberately placing triggering material into your community for the “lulz”, other times it can be emerge from an intense online exchange. You need to ready to support the long-term health both of individuals and of your community as a whole.

This article is intended as a resource, but is not a substitute for seeking professional help and taking advantage of previous work in this area.

Below, we have adapted the recommended protocols for handling traumatic material taken from First Draft News and the Dart Center/ These tips focus on supporting the traumatized individually and collectively.

1. Set up for uniformity, but look for effect
Trauma responses and triggers differ from person to person, community to community, occurrence to occurrence. It is important to recognize traumatic content as often as possible, and to be aware of when and how the need for intervention varies.

2. Stop and identify the event
Before anything else happens, once you are aware of trauma affecting you or others, take a moment to collect yourself/the community, and consciously state that this is happening. Be conscious of your resources and limitations (time, severity, other people), and recognize the material/moment as traumatizing, and demanding of a coping mechanism.

3. Prepare your resources
Before you return to the material, get ready to process it, and gather the necessary supplies and resources for the next step.

4. Document what has happened
As much as possible, you want to document what has happened so far, and what happens next. A particularly disturbing photo, a slew of racist memes, a flaming thread – these are upsetting. Synchronous documentation allows you to chronicle what’s happening, to create some professional distance, and to minimize the need to go back and re-expose yourself and others again later. Make sure that the documentation is saved somewhere that everyone who might need access to it later can find it.

5. Stop again
Step away and acknowledge that what has happened is traumatic. Recognize your primary engagement as done, and check in with yourself and anyone else who had to go through the process with you.

6. Review, label, share responsibly
Go back to your documentation and consider what you would have needed to know ahead of time, if you had known you would be interacting with this material. Label it accordingly, and share it responsibly. Information about traumatic material is historically and systemically important for your community – but that does not mean that it has to be force fed to everyone. If you are summarizing what happened for your community, allow language that gives them time to prepare for the themes that follow. If you yourself are still feeling upset, note that and, if you can, step away until you feel more calm.

7. Ground yourself in the present
Do something to signify the moment as having occurred and finished. The Dart Center recommends that reporters create rituals to signify the end of traumatic exposure. A large component of adverse reactions to trauma or stress come from denial. It is important to recognize that this has happened, that it has an effect, but that it is not still happening.

8. Check in regularly
The documentation step is important because it externalizes and records occurrences, and also allows your community to learn from its history and seek patterns. Check in regularly to see if you or your team are constantly documenting specific kinds of trauma-inducing material.

9. Encourage each team member to have an escape valve
It is important that venting or escaping NOT be discouraged. While they are not a substitute for help, they can act as a reaffirmation of human contact. Venting forums, happy files, a contact person elsewhere in the newsroom, advance permission to take a walk, can all be useful tools for individual release.

10. Get Help
These tips are not enough. Make sure that paths to obtain professional support are clearly accessible and repeated on a regular basis.

If you are managing a moderation team, we also recommend you read Anika Gupta’s piece on emotional labor and moderation.

How can we make these guides better? Let us know
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