Opinion: Echoes of trauma in the digital age – Navigating vicarious suffering

Fazal Masood Malik and Farhan Khokhar, Canada

In today’s world, where information is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, we find ourselves continuously confronted by global tragedies, ranging from conflicts in regions such as Palestine to widespread famines and environmental disasters. This relentless influx of news, predominantly disseminated through social media channels, often bypasses mainstream media’s traditional filters, exposing us to graphic and harrowing content.

Social media platforms, engineered to customise content based on user preferences, play an active role in intensifying this exposure. This deliberate strategy leads to what is known as vicarious trauma. Far from being an unintentional consequence, this is a calculated aspect of social media design. Under the pretence of fostering user engagement, these platforms’ algorithms are strategically programmed to emphasise and propagate extreme viewpoints and images across our timelines and newsfeeds.

Vicarious trauma refers to the emotional and psychological distress experienced by individuals who are indirectly exposed to traumatic events. This exposure can occur through various means, including hearing firsthand accounts, viewing graphic images or videos, or working with survivors of trauma. 

While the term itself is contemporary, the phenomenon of vicarious trauma is not. Historical writings, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and historical accounts of survivors, such as those of the genocide in recent history, offer insights into how humans have grappled with the emotional impact of witnessing suffering throughout time. These experiences demonstrate how vicarious trauma can be transmitted across generations, impacting families and communities for decades.

In modern society, we witness a distinct phenomenon characterised by the widespread presence of unregulated news feeds. In contrast to the past, where mainstream print and broadcast media served as controlled conduits—akin to water taps, carefully regulating both the content and its dissemination—today’s landscape is markedly different. The advent of social media and the rise of citizen journalism have transformed the flow of information. Now, distressing news and images are disseminated rapidly and indiscriminately, much like water gushing from uncontrolled fire hydrants, without significant oversight.

Research shows that such relentless exposure creates a profound sense of despair, leading individuals to grapple with existential questions like “Why does God not stop this?” and, in some cases, may even precipitate a loss of faith.

The Holy Quran emphasises the importance of compassion and empathy for those who suffer. However, it also acknowledges the potential for witnessing suffering to negatively impact emotional well-being, encouraging individuals to seek solace in prayer and remembrance of God (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.154). Seeking patience, or sabr, through prayers is a central doctrine in Islam. One must take but a glance at the life of the Holy Prophetsa to learn how he practised this teaching in real life and the remarkable results received.

The exposure to images depicting the plight of children and other innocent individuals embroiled in conflict situations is profoundly unsettling. Such visuals often evoke a sense of helplessness among viewers, which is understandably distressing. It is not uncommon for individuals to experience feelings of trauma as a result of this exposure. As emphasised in the Holy Quran (Surah ar-Ra‘d, Ch.13: V.29), comfort and peace of mind are often attained through the remembrance of Allah [zikr].

By the grace of Allah, we are blessed with divinely-guided Khilafat. At the onset of the hostilities between Israel & Palestinians, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa guided us to pray. 

“I wish to remind you all to pray in light of the current situation of the world. […] Ahmadis should especially focus on praying. They should not become relaxed. At least one prostration in every prayer, or at least one prostration in any one of the prayers should be spent in supplication for this [situation].” (Friday Sermon, 27 October 2023, “Muhammadsa: The Great Exemplar”, www.alhakam.org)

As a humble community, we may lack the worldly power to directly halt the actions of aggressors, still, it remains within our capacity to be the voice for the oppressed. 

Merely expressing outrage on social media may not bring about tangible change in any conflict. However, taking definitive steps such as engaging in dialogue with influential figures, fostering awareness within the community, and penning thoughtful correspondences to intellectuals can steer the course of history towards improvement. 

This journey, however, must commence with prayers, be sustained through prayers, and culminate in prayers. Through this spiritual journey, the trajectory of conflicts can be transformed. The role of a believer in implementing absolute justice is pivotal in this context, for believers possess the power of belief, a quality often missing in the aggressor. (Surah ash-Shura, Ch.42: V.41)

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or losing hope or faith, consider reaching for a newspaper instead of your phone. Offer a prayer for those in distress and empower yourself by taking pen to paper to make a meaningful difference.

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