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.


  • Andre

    There is an interesting moment, and that is the wonderful neoheroic feeling that in a technocratic world a single person can still make a difference and that indeed certain things succeed and fail with committed action from persons which in the worst case means you. It is an honour and a burden and results are expected. Heroic mania-depression is natural. It just happens to everyone passionate about what he does.

    I guess the wish of all activtists is the idea that you would like to have the ressources at your disposal to outsource your actions, to make your own work obsolete and mediocre.

    The best cure for your sould I am aware of is German romanticism.

  • Leila


    I´m finding it hard to express how much I relate to what you´ve written. I´m Spanish with a Syrian background, and since the beginning of 2012 most of my energy, dreams and nightmares are devoted to Syria. I sympathize with every word you wrote and it helps, it helps to feel that each of us is not alone. At the same time, and despite the pain and the loss, I feel like the Syrian struggle has given me so much and taught me so much that I can never be thankful enough for it. Most people live their lives trapped in little fights and discussions, and we have been part of something huge, something worth it, despite everything and no matter how things evolve in the future. That´s something worth sharing with our grandchildren.

  • Pauline

    I love this article, it is very much the distress associated with carers for terminally ill people, physically not being threatened and a feeling of but I’m not the person who is really suffering.

    I think this is a very common activist issue for those who are activist because they have to do something rather than socially political creatures. I mean no offense to the second group, it is a personality type that allows people to engage often extremely successfully without taking too much of this on board.

    I think one of the most inspiring visits I payed was to the apartheid museum in South Africa. It showed very clearly there are no unique hero’s but a multitude of people participating in their own way that create a moment of change.

    I find it helpful to understand I am a whisper in the wind, I can never be sure I changed anything but I know at least I tried.

    And maybe it’s not my whisper that changes, perhaps it amplified someone elses.

    I still believe that the anti-Iraq war marches changed the world because, for once they couldn’t tell the people we were bombing that the enemy agreed with it, we didn’t. The people there knew we cared and disagreed. A world first.

    If you could talk to the people who you helped over the period that you supported them you would realise that instead of not doing enough, you were the voice at the end of the line that kept them from feeling alone, to stop them from giving up.

    Caring is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and you have it in bucketfuls. But caring like all forms of love, needs to apply to yourself first. You are not alone.

  • Rebecca Vincent

    Thank you for your honesty in this piece. You have beautifully articulated some feelings that I had not quite acknowledged in myself.

    Four months ago, I was kicked out of Azerbaijan in connection with my human rights work in the country. I have spent the last seven years of my life split between living in and travelling to Azerbaijan and working with local activists to improve the human rights situation in the country, and am struggling to come to terms with the fact that I can no longer help from on the ground. I have continued to do what I can from abroad, much of it online, but the feeling of inadequacy that you have described, that you can never do enough from afar, is sometimes overwhelming.

    Ultimately, though, I think that there are many necessary roles in the fight against injustice, and we should all do what we can, where we can. You have most certainly done your part, and I hope that one day I’ll be able to say the same about myself.

  • Tads

    Beautiful. I am so glad you wrote this. Anyone who truly cares and strives to assist right will end up here or on the path sooner or later. This may help others recognise the signs and perhaps be able to manage them early for a better outcome.

    Or perhaps not. If you pull back early that sense of “I did my part” would be greatly diminished and I bet we’d feel ashamed of exercising self preservation when so many others physically living in the conflict don’t have the option.

    We live in a world where caring can be a curse, but be damned if we’ll stop caring. They can’t beat that out of us. Rest up and prepare for the next fight :)

  • Mamat

    Thanks for writing this Cameran. I think digital activism, with the immediacy of information and the distance from the physical struggle, is something new. That instant flow of information and response creates many pressures that weren’t there before.

    But it includes many elements from pre-digital solidarity movements as well. Others supporting struggles in decades gone by have faced, to different degrees, several similar issues. Diaspora involved in the struggle often had even greater challenges, separated from family and friends who were under the boots of authorities in movements like Iran’s Green Revolution, but also ‘living it’ every day in more intense ways. We should not forget those experiences, and incorporate them in whatever we’re doing in the digital sphere.

    Part of that is giving time to what you need as an individual, as Cameran notes. Part of it, though, is also fostering community among those of us far away from such struggles, so that we are also united and supportive of each other. That includes support within and between diaspora and non-diaspora solidarity supporters. Efforts like SBTF’s Empathy Coach are one way, though new; kind of semi-professionalised. However many groups can’t do that.

    Local community and local support are huge factors that need nurturing. We need to be active both online and offline, and get support both online and offline, as communities, no matter where we are.

    (Cameran, I’m not sure if you are part of the Iranian diaspora or not, though I’m guessing you are, and that it’s a further part of your story. But in either case I would guess that your role there is also a big part of your experience, as it has been with others; and a source of both some of the challenges and of potential resources at hand to try and do this important work in ways that don’t cause so much trauma.)

    Thanks again for writing this. It’s such an important story shared by many, and needs validation.

  • oM g

    This is a wonderful opening to a new acceptance of how connected we truly are. I want to make it easier for others to participate and “Do their part” in a less intense way that still respects the severity of the moment ‘over there’. Having been a survivor of various persistent trauma’s a can attest to the need for non-threatening support and how healing providing empathy can be. I invite you and your viewers to an active listening, empathy circle on G+ Monday 12p – 12a EST.

  • I have been blogging against war, and otherwise active as a pacifist voice online, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    For the first few years, I and many others like me copped an avalanche of abuse from the mostly US right-wing “wingnuts”. This included constant, vitriolic ad-hominem personal abuse plus threats to family and friends from dangerous psychos who actually tracked down names and addresses, with help from government contacts. We soon learned to adopt pseudonyms.

    As the war turned and the wingnuts became less proactive, images of dead children became our staple diet. We thought that by subjecting people to the “reality” of war, we could somehow break though the immunising filter of TV screens and govt censors. And it was only fair that we should view the images ourselves if we wanted others to view them. Now we will never be rid of those images.

    I have lived in countries where the TV news regularly shows bloodied corpses. But most Western nations do not allow this. Instead, the TV and newspaper images of state-sanctioned war are sanitized (even though our children are freely exposed to far more violent scenes from commercialized Hollywood movies and computer games).

    We should never expose people to the horrors of war unnecessarily. But when our own governments are the authors of such violence, we are all obliged to bear witness and do what we can. When YOUR leaders wage war in YOUR name, YOU are obliged to speak out, or else YOU have acquiesced.

    As adults, we are obliged to endure trauma, if necessary, in order to protect our children and create a better world for them.

    Ten years of online pacifism has taken a huge toll on my life, in ways I cannot begin to discuss. And I have seen many other brave, intelligent and dedicated souls fall silent and “go dark” (great expression) along the way. Many I knew lost their jobs, their marriages, their families, perhaps even their sanity. Alas.

    But how do we compare this with the suffering of those who have lived the reality of daily violence our “free” and “democratic” governments inflict on them? I do not even try. It is a false dichotomy.

  • […] παρόν άρθρο είναι από τον Cameran Ashraf, από την ιστοσελίδα Global Voices Online, στο οποίο έπεσα τυχαία επάνω και καθώς μου κινησε το […]

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