How brands and social media platforms benefit from activism and trauma

Viral violent videos have become tools for change, but the footage can also affect our mental health


Trigger warning: Tuesday, May 25 is the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, which was recorded by then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier on her cellphone. That devastating 10-minute video would circulate online and instigate a global movement.

“We would not have seen the extent of support for #BlackLivesMatter had that video not been taken and had that form of witnessing not been possible,” says University of Toronto’s Megan Boler. She is professor in the Social Justice Education department and co-editor of the book, Affective Politics Of Digital Media: Propaganda By Other Means. She connects the response to the video of George Floyd’s murder to the 1991 video of Los Angeles police attacking Rodney King. “There’s a long history of this kind of witnessing being necessary for social movements, for social change.”

As millions watched white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin put a knee on unarmed Black man Floyd’s neck, we’re still wondering why it takes violent videos to create social change – and what impact this repeated series of events has on mental health.

In the last year, social media has amplified the harm against Black and Asian communities. Videos of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death at the hands of three white men in Georgia, the bodycam footage of Daunte Wright’s shooting by police, and an older Asian woman randomly attacked in New York City went viral. Social media algorithms disburse them widely. Corporations feed off these moments to build their brands off movements – think Disney’s #BlackLivesMatter video, Nike’s For Once, Don’t Do It campaign or Coca-Cola’s #StopAsianHate ad.

According to therapist and social worker Jenna Dolly, widespread racial trauma has effects similar to post-traumatic stress. She says the constant barrage of traumatic content can lead to emotional numbness, internalized negativity, anxiety and a hopelessness that can lead to depression.

“When you are constantly experiencing media depictions of racism or police violence or triggers of everyday life – and they’re on your social media feed every single day – it is trauma, it is impactful, it will impact your mental health.”

Not all traumatic content causes trauma, which is the lasting emotional and psychological effects from events. Whether caused by sustained or isolated abuse, a tragic accident, poverty or even systemic racial discrimination, trauma is deeply individual. What is difficult to endure for some won’t be for others; it all depends on your memories or life experience. We all have different emotional and psychological reactions. But according to social media experts, platforms target all of us with content that gets the biggest reactions.

“Social media profits from targeting our emotions in particular ways,” says Boler, adding that the marketing industry and Silicon Valley have more data on psychology and cognitive science than researchers and scientists do. They can tap into our emotions, anticipate our reactions and monetize that.

“There’s blood money going on,” says The Skin We’re In filmmaker Charles Officer, referring to everyone from Silicon Valley to Wall Street (and the influencers in between) turning a profit on the global moment of racial reckoning. “People are capitalizing on trauma. That has to be checked.”

Witnessing trauma on social media

Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson has never watched the video of Floyd’s murder in full. She only saw portions of it during the trial that ended in a jury convicting Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

“I just avoid those videos altogether because it does have a traumatizing impact on some people,” says Hudson.

You may have noticed that Hudson and activists focused on police violence like Desmond Cole never share videos of suffering. She says it’s something she doesn’t personally need to do to fight against police violence. She also expresses dismay at how normalized the traumatic videos have become. She recalls being on a CBC TV panel and, without warning, the program played traumatic content of police brutality. Hudson feels sickened at how such content is normalized and ready for consumption when it really shouldn’t be. 

But she also recognizes the function these traumatic videos play in mobilizing people and getting the wheels of justice turning.

 “These are two ideas: We need accountability and proof and witnessing; and also, we don’t want to be traumatizing and normalizing the situation. And they are in conflict with each other.”

 She wonders whether having video footage would have raised awareness and secured some justice for D’Andre Campbell and Clive Mensah. Both are young Black men from the Greater Toronto Area who were killed by police while coping with a mental health crisis in or near their own homes. Following SIU investigations, police in both of those cases faced no consequences.

 “The truth is, the reason people don’t know those names is because they didn’t go viral on social media, and journalists didn’t really cover those stories to the same extent as George Floyd,” says Hudson, adding that it saddens her that a violent viral video is what it takes to get people involved.

Dolly concurs, expressing disappointment that it takes trauma to inspire allyship and awareness that systemic anti-Black racism needs to be addressed.

“My pain, my trauma, the elimination of my community is what sparked your concern, sparked your empathy, sparked your belief that this is an actual problem,” says Dolly. “It was on your terms. We’ve been saying it. And this is what it took for you to believe that.”

Who is this for?

Boler refers me to Pat Ward Williams’s 1986 art piece, Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock. Williams took a photo of a Black man who was lynched that was published in a 1937 issue of Life Magazine and reframed it with scrawled text asking several questions. Among those questions: How can this photo exist? Can you be Black and look at this? Could Hitler show pics of the Holocaust to keep the Jews in line? WHO took this picture? WHO took this picture? 

Williams’s piece repeats the question of the identity of the photographer, presuming it to be a white man who chose to document it for public consumption instead of aiding the victim. Lynchings were on public display as entertainment for oppressors and a warning to the oppressed. Williams’s work shines a light on the moral implications of creating traumatic content, then and now, and what consuming this content means for Black or white audiences.

We’ve been asking some of these questions of recent works such as the Oscar-winning short film Two Distant Strangers, which borrows the Groundhog Day time-loop premise to tell the story of a Black man repeatedly murdered by police, and the horror series Them, which over 10 episodes mostly displays cruelty toward a Black family.

“We have to be so mindful as creators about what traumas we’re putting on screen and to what capacity, and really what those intentions are,” says Officer. He’s currently preparing to shoot the new CBC series The Porter, which tells the story of Black train porters from Montreal’s Little Burgundy community a century ago. He’s still trying to figure out how to respectfully and authentically present the truth but temper those ugly moments and find joy.

We see such considerations in recent works like Barry Jenkins’s TV series The Underground Railroad. We don’t see them in the horror series Them, which relentlessly puts anti-Black violence on display and begs questions regarding who it is made for. That kind of violence can be revelatory to white audiences while traumatizing for those who have lived experience with racism.

Hudson takes a pause from discussing the moral and ethical dimensions of sharing traumatic content, which she agrees is complex. She reminds us that what’s more important is consideration for the person who, in real life scenarios, had to record that content.

“Someone is there witnessing this and has no other recourse than to take a video,” says Hudson. “Perhaps they could intervene, but maybe that is going to end up with them also being killed. They could walk away. They didn’t. They decided to do something that would provide some sort of proof that something wrong happened here. That, to me, is really important and should never be forgotten as part of the conversation.”

The line between activism and trauma 

Just over a year ago, American writer and activist Shaun King published the video of Arbery’s horrifying killing by three white men in Georgia. The graphic footage prompted action but also criticism for the trauma it unleashed on unsuspecting viewers.

King is the co-founder of the Grassroots Law Project alongside Lee Merritt, the attorney representing Arbery’s family. On a Zoom call, he tells NOW he had the blessing of Arbery’s mother before publishing.

“Ahmaud had been dead for four months,” says King, reflecting on when he shared the video. “Ahmaud’s mother told us she would literally see these men out at the grocery store. They were just out and about in town. They weren’t wanted. They weren’t hiding. They were just living their lives until we created the pressure. And the video was the tipping point. It’s also disgusting that the video had to be the tipping point.

“What’s also true is that the video is traumatic,” he continues “The video is horrible. First and foremost, it’s traumatic and horrible for Ahmaud’s family, for his mother, Wanda. This is her baby. This is her son. He’s not a news story or a case or a cause. It’s traumatic for the family. But it’s traumatic for strangers. It’s traumatic for people who look at Ahmaud and see their own family reflected in him.”

King gained prominence as a journalist covering the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and as an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement. He is credited with using his social media platform to identify white supremacists who brutally attacked DeAndre Harris during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. But he’s also been accused repeatedly by other activists of mismanaging money

“I’ve never misappropriated money,” says King in response to the allegations. “I’ve never mis-accounted for it. Not from a family, not from not from a cause, not from a political campaign. And yet, no matter who says it, no matter what reports we release, no matter how we approach it, it will not go away.”

The criticism against King is coupled with wariness over the traumatic content he regularly posts. In his case, sharing traumatic content on his social media platform has become something like a brand; he recognizes that is what he represents for people and that’s what his followers expect. You might recall that social media users in Toronto were tagging King after Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death during a police interaction in May 2020, hoping he could amplify the incident.

“When something traumatic has happened, particularly if it involves police or racism, people tag me,” says King. “They hope that the exposure may empower them in some way to better help advocate for their family or their loved ones.”

“When I share these videos, always with the blessing and permission of families that I’m fighting for, I share them knowing that it gives the family a better chance at some type of justice and accountability; and it causes its own set of harm and trauma. They’re both true. I don’t have peace about it. I don’t feel good about it.”

King says that 20 million people saw the George Floyd video on his page but adds that he’s not really sharing these videos for Black people who “already know of this harm and trauma.” 

Why does he share these videos? To force the small number of people in power to act and make the decisions that lead to justice and accountability, he says.

These videos affect him too, he adds. And because of that, he chooses not to watch more unnecessary traumatic content, like Two Distant Strangers or Them.

“I know people involved in each of those film projects that you’ve named,” says King. “I know that they did not create them for spectacle. Each of those film projects have Black men and women at the centre of them. But here’s the thing. I don’t watch them.”

“I don’t know who their primary audience is, but because I’m confronting this every day, my own heart and soul and brain are already pushed to the limit. I can’t watch it as entertainment. I’m glad when I see a film be recognized or a story win an award, but generally if trauma is at the centre of them, I by and large am not watching them.

“I find that a lot of the same is true even for the content that I share.”

Activism vs algorithms

Boler describes social media as a double-edged sword. These are capitalist platforms that make money off of data and advertising pitched to us as tools for social change. On the one hand, the technology gave way to the Arab Spring and captured and dispersed the Floyd video to inspire a global movement. 

However, Boler points out that the same technology is also used “for surveillance of Black people and other people.” The Ottawa Citizen recently obtained documents revealing that the Canadian military were compiling data on the Black Lives Matter movement in Ontario along with other activity on social media as part of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Social media could also be targeting you with traumatic content. Platforms make money from likes, clicks, shares and the time spent looking at content. Social media finds the content to draw you in and keep you hooked, and those could also be the things that could be bad for your mental health: whether it’s the activities of the person you jealously hatewatch or videos that stir your strongest emotions. If you are someone who reacts strongly to a type of content, social media is going to feed you more of it.

“The tools for this rapid circulation is really where I think the trauma starts to build,” says Jamil Fiorino-Habib, a Canadian student at the University of Amsterdam completing his masters in platform studies.

Fiorino-Habib is writing his thesis on how social media merges “temporalities” for users. In other words, he analyzes how a person can be leisurely browsing Twitter on a day off and get sucked into what’s happening in the world politically, whether it involves #BlackLivesMatter or #SaveSheikhJarrah – the movement supporting Palestinians who are being forcibly removed from their homes in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood to make way for Israeli settlements. 

He looks at how reactions and responses to events feeds data to Twitter that the platform then monetizes. He says that users are essentially providing social media platforms, and in turn corporations, free emotional labour, since their social media use and emotional responses to content is being monetized by a corporation.

“A time of leisure becomes the time of politics becomes the time of labour,” says Fiorino-Habib. “All of these activities are intersecting at once. We don’t really ever have a time where we’re unplugged, where we’re not being monetized, where we’re not being profited off.”

I’m speaking to Fiorino-Habib in early May, as the situation in Sheikh Jarrah is intensifying but Western media and social media seem to be ignoring, or even suppressing, news from Palestine.

Instagram and Twitter have blamed a glitch in their “automated systems” for removing posts related to Sheikh Jarrah and subsequently suspending accounts posting such content. But advocates aren’t necessarily buying it. Over the past week, social media users have noticed posts advocating for Palestinians are being suppressed, their reach limited compared to normal. The Intercept reported in 2017 that Facebook was deleting accounts at the behest of Israeli and U.S. intelligence. But Fiorino-Habib says the current suppression might not even be as insidious as that.

“This is all being controlled behind the scenes through these algorithmic mechanics,” says Fiorino-Habib. He says the simple yes or no binaries of algorithms aren’t necessarily designed to purposely suppress information regarding Palestine. But they are encoded with the implicit biases of programmers, feed the biases of users and can reinforce systemic oppression.

“We might say that there has been, colonially speaking, a bias against the Palestinian cause,” says Fiorino-Habib. “Major tech companies who are situated in America participate implicitly in this imperialism that has forced the Palestinians into this place by financially supporting the Israeli military and whatnot. It finds its way into these algorithms.”

Social media platforms are a complicated tool for activism. But perhaps no more than old-school media organizations. There are implicit, imperialist biases in both. Social media is just better at monetizing your activism.

“All of this data is being accumulated and then shared with third parties, who are then using that data to retool their business models or to capitalize on trends of social justice activism,” says Fiorino-Habib, 

“Every single thing on these platforms can be converted into monetizing data. They’re converting every single kind of activity and feeling into a commodity. [That] really puts into question how the activity that we’re doing on these platforms is just a form of emotional labour.”

Monetizing trauma

When the guilty verdict was handed down in Chauvin’s murder trial, the Las Vegas Raiders shared a graphic on social media with the words, “I Can Breathe.” Those words, echoing Floyd’s cries in the video that he couldn’t breathe, were met with a swift backlash.

Hudson is not completely opposed to brands and popular culture taking up causes. There is a benefit she says, particularly since, as an activist, she’s trying to get the broader public to digest complex ideas. She points out that #DefundThePolice is a hard shift for society, since you are asking the public to challenge the conventional wisdom that police are good and create safety, and to think about safety in other ways. When she sees black squares on Instagram or the Toronto Raptors putting #BlackLivesMatter on their tour bus, Hudson can gauge how well these ideas are taking hold.

 “It tells me that my ideas are becoming popular,” says Hudson. “It tells me somehow you are making an impact on the broader culture, and that is useful to know.”

But, as with everything, the relationship between activism and capitalism is complicated. And it gets outright gross when the black squares on your feed accumulate into that “I Can Breathe” tweet.

“What exactly do you think changed with this one-off conviction?” Hudson asks. “These brands see that something is becoming popular and they want to build their own reputation. They want to build an identity for themselves based on how they respond to Black death. They’re not doing that by joining calls to defund the police, helping to bolster ballot initiatives or legislative changes. They’re posting on social media some sort of celebratory statement for something that is not for celebration.

“It’s gross to think that there are some marketing people sitting behind a table thinking, ‘Okay, here’s our moment. The verdict’s coming. Do we have an image? Let’s put it up.’ That feels really disgusting to me.”

Capitalizing on trauma comes in many shapes and platforms. From big brands to black squares to media and entertainment companies creating superficially “relevant” content to influencers performing allyship.

But what if an activist becomes a brand?

“If I share a post about Ahmaud Arbery, I am also literally organizing millions of people at the Grassroots Law Project to fight to hold the men who murdered him accountable,” says King when I ask him to consider how he too can be considered a brand. King, along with everyone I spoke to, agrees that the difference is who is putting in the actual work.

“I talked to Breonna [Taylor’s] mother this week,” he says. “I talked to George Floyd’s family last week. I spoke to Ahmaud’s mother this past week. These are families that I’ve come to know and love. There are hundreds of families like that. Any time I’m sharing this, sharing some type of injustice, I’m also trying to do the work to build some type of serious policy fight alongside of it.”

Hudson points out that there will always be compromises and complexities, particularly in a capitalist society where pretty much everyone benefits from the exploitation of people. 

“There are a lot of people around the world who get exploited and harmed based on their business models,” says Hudson, adding that ultimately those with dark skin get harmed by those practices the most. But the situation is complex enough that everyone should do the best they can.

“Then you think about Ben and Jerry’s,” says Hudson, referring to the ice cream brand that for years has been speaking out against systemic racism and mass incarceration even before the tragedies of the last year, and were quick to adopt the #DefundThePolice stance. “They are presenting themselves as an abolitionist organization now… For them it’s not a black square. They’re like, ‘if you guys don’t want to buy our ice cream anymore, we don’t care.’”

Ben and Jerry’s has come under fire from pro-Israel voices for creating their Pecan Resist flavour and using proceeds to support charitable causes led by anti-Zionist Palestinian-American activist -Linda Sarsour. On the other hand, Ben and Jerry’s has also been criticized by anti-Zionists for continuing to operate in Israel, and the brand has yet to chime in on the latest violence in the region.

“I want be perfectly clear,” adds Hudson. “I’m not endorsing Ben and Jerry’s. I know that they’ve received some criticism. My point is there are different ways that those who want to respond can respond. Some are a lot more about marketing and brand building than actually standing in solidarity and taking a risk to force a shift in society.”

Dolly suggests brands and corporations should focus inward rather than on their social media activism and performance. She says companies need to look at how they are backing up tweets with their own work culture, the people they make room for at the table, their internal structures and how they benefit the community, whether it’s by supporting local schools or making impactful hiring decisions. 

That kind of work, says Dolly, should take precedence over social media messaging and advertising.

“We know with social media it’s like, ‘What is our competition doing?’” says Dolly, suggesting that brands can be as performative and petty as influencers. “This kind of work can’t be about what the competition is doing. ‘How are we going to one-up this video?’ ‘How are we going to one-up that coverage or that performative allyship?’

“You can’t one-up on trauma. We know what that feels like. You won’t pull one over, especially on racialized people.”


If you are in crisis, here is where to get help:

Distress Centres of Toronto
Call: 416-408-HELP (4357); Text: 45645;
Web: torontodistresscentre.com

Gerstein Centre
Call: 416-929-5200;
Web: gersteincentre.org

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Call: 416-535-8501;
Web: camh.ca

Warm Line, Progress Place
Call: 416-323-3721 (noon-8 pm), 416-960-9276 (8 pm-midnight); Text: 647-557-5882;
Web: warmline.ca

Kids Help Phone
Call: 1-800-668-6868;
Text: 686868;
Web: kidshelpphone.ca

LGBT Youthline
Call: 1-800-268-9688;
Text: 647-694-4275;
Web: youthline.ca

@justsayrad

Radheyan Simonpillai expands on this story with Kelsey Adams and Norm Wilner in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

Brand Voices

One response to “How brands and social media platforms benefit from activism and trauma”

  1. Like so many other people, I’ve grown weary of general social media’s physical (and often identity) disconnect, through which the ugliest of comments can be and too often are made without consequence for the aggressor. What I find indispensable about social media in general, however, is that it has enabled far greater information freedom than that allowed by what had been a rigidly gatekept news and information virtual monopoly held by the pre-2000 electronic and print mainstream news-media.

    Besides the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests, I seriously doubt that Greta Thunberg’s pre-pandemic formidable climate change movement, for example, would’ve been able to regularly form on such a congruently colossal scale if not in large part for the posting and messaging systems of Facebook.

    Though it has arrived late when it comes to strategically countering systemic social/racial injustices and climate change through multiple massive (even intercontinental) demonstrations, I believe that such progressive movements were made far more effective by the unprecedented informative and organizational abilities made widely available by no-fee social media platforms.

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