Social media is a powerful tool where the words of one person can reach the screens of millions. Depending on the statement posted this can lead to a great feeling of empathy within the audience or great lash back on the poster due to a poorly received message. The latter was what effected Justine Sacco in “God That Was Awesome”. It is also what effected Kenneth Cole and many others who tried to make a joke that was received very poorly.
In 2013, fashion designer Kenneth Cole tweeted a message that was very poorly received. He tweeted “‘Boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear” in response to the potential intervention of the United States in the war in Syria. This was a poorly made joke and many people responded with calling Kenneth Cole insensitive. Cole has also made many other tweets over the years that people have dubbed insensitive. Some of these include “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online… -KC” (in 2011) and “Regardless of the right to bear arms, we in no way condone the right to bare feet.” (in response to debates on right to bear arms). Cole has said that his tweets advertise his product along with making people more aware of current world issues. Many of his tweets are viewed as insensitive by the public though.
It can be argued that empathy in people has decreased due to the implementation of technology. A study from the University of Michigan showed that over thirty years empathy has decreased in college students by forty percent, and the sharpest drop was after 2000 when the use of technology significantly picked up (Belani). Belani says that components of empathy can be traced back to different parts of digital culture. The most useful part of her argument is the effect of social media on affective understanding. She argues that the basis of affective understanding lies in non verbal cues. In social media posts there are no non verbal cues. This makes it much easier for someone to misinterpret an online post. While joking a person may smile and laugh making it obvious that they are not being serious. Online, none of these cues exist and a sarcastic joke may be taken as a serious and insulting comment. Another important point Belani makes is the effect of social media on emotion-contagion. She states that this is how people begin to feel how other people around them feel. Anger is highly communicable over social media posts and this leads to “outrage culture”. This is exemplified when a celebrity says something that is taken the wrong way and their post is shared many times. These two types of empathy that are disappearing can account for much of the overreaction to posts on social media.
In the case of Kenneth Cole the lack of affective understanding and emotion-contagion are what lead his post to become so viral due to outrage. No one could see his facial expression to tell that he was joking. Although it can be inferred from the context that this post was a joke it is still different reading it on a screen instead of seeing his emotions as he said it. The most important part to this post going viral and the level of outrage it inspired is due to emotional-contagion. When one person saw this and shared it it showed many other people their opinion. When people see the anger one person feels, they often feel it to and reshare the post. Thus, it is the lack of person-on-person interaction that causes the phenomenon of the lack of empathy for certain social media posts.
Belani, Abby. “Deconstructing Empathy in the Digital Age.” Impakter. N.p., 31 Mar. 2016. Web. 19 Oct. 2016. <http://impakter.com/deconstructing-empathy-in-the-digital-age/>.
O’Toole, James. “Kenneth Cole’s Tweet on Syria Sparks Outrage.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2016. <http://money.cnn.com/2013/09/05/news/companies/kenneth-cole-tweet/index.html>.