TW: This post includes a link to Sonny Bill Williams’ tweet that includes graphic images of two dead children.

By Ellipsister, Co-Editor

Should graphic images posted on social media be accompanied by a trigger warning? Are trigger warnings being overused by educated snowflakes and conservative bigots to avoid their views being challenged? This post briefly explores the importance of trigger warnings to ensure trauma survivors are not involuntarily exposed to triggering material.

Sonny Bill Williams (SBW) tweeted two pictures of dead children to over 554k followers on Twitter. His tweet was retweeted 1,333 times and liked by 1,550 accounts.[1] His post elicited mixed responses. As far as I can see most of it was positive. The odd few criticised his lack of a TW (trigger warning), while others claimed his tweet disrespected the dead, and others just couldn’t stomach the graphic nature of the content.

While the conversation has been taking place in Universities and various circles around the world, the concept of TW’s is still relatively unknown in Aotearoa, unless you’re an avid reader of feminist forums, blogs, articles etc.

Trigger warnings  were originally designed for the benefit of people with post-traumatic stress disorder. They involve a written or verbal statement warning that an article or discussion might contain triggering material for trauma survivors. Kate Manne, NY Times writes:

The idea was to flag content that depicted or discussed common causes of trauma, like military combat, child abuse, incest and sexual violence. People could then choose whether or not to engage with this material.

TW’s are about enabling people to voluntarily expose themselves to content that might evoke a strong psychological response, rather than having it imposed on them without being able to prepare themselves and thereby leading to a triggering event.

A useful analogy for TW’s was offered by Evalith on Fuck Yeah, Trigger Warnings in which she explains that being triggered is like having an allergic reaction.

The analogy in brief is that both triggering and allergies are involuntary reactions to particular stimuli both varying in degrees from minor to severe. While an allergy is physical, triggering is psychological. And just as food labels provide allergy warnings, so too should content that we know could potentially trigger an involuntary psychological response grounded in past trauma.

The SBW tweet has highlighted that some people view TW’s as censorship. This is kind of true, but it’s not of suppression lineage. It is soft-censoring that enables trauma survivors the choice to decide if they will voluntarily expose themselves to potentially triggering content. TW discourse is not without its critics but I cannot see how having a well functioning empathy barometer is squawked at as coddling of the mind.

The question then is should SBW have used a TW with his tweet? The short answer in my view is yes. But including a TW is dependent on a couple of things:

  • the person knowing that TW’s are a thing; and
  • understanding what they are and why they’re important.

The learning for us all is in future then is to perhaps think about our content and note that it doesn’t take too many characters to say TW: dead children (adjusted accordingly). If you’re unsure, here’s a list of common examples on when to use TW’s. It’s also useful for Twitter users who don’t want to automatically see image previews, to disable this feature.

Responsibility for content is not one-sided given the nature of the platforms we choose to use. But a simple TW can potentially save a person from reliving their trauma – whatever it may be.

Mike McRoberts offered a relevant perspective regarding SBW’s tweet too in that it was intended to make us all uncomfortable. While there is certainly truth in that for the majority of us who have not experienced living in a war zone, or under violent oppressive rule, and who don’t put to much thought into overseas conflicts, it does overlooks the very real experiences of trauma survivors. Discomfort and triggers are not synonymous.

For the record, I don’t think we should be hammering SBW hard for not including a TW. However, I do agree that as an internationally renowned sports star, and a UNICEF Ambassador that SBW has a responsibility to recognise that some of his followers may be Syrian refugees, or trauma survivors who have had similar experiences and that those pictures might trigger a severe emotional response in them, whether he intended that or not.

We need to be clear though: TW’s should never become the default for over-educated progressive snowflakes or impossibly conservative bigots who just want to avoid exposure to material that challenges their prevailing views. TW’s serve a specific purpose the co-option and degradation of which would be incredibly harmful for freedom of thought and expression. Like I said above – responsibility for content is not one sided but a TW is not too big of an ask especially when it is of no consequence to those of us unaffected, but of huge benefit to trauma survivors.


[1] Last checked 30 December 2015, at 14:37.