Empathy in the Digital Age

In “God That Was Awesome”, the author Jon Ronson contends the devastating impact of social media Tweeter on Justine Sacco who posts a joke on tweeter which is regarded as seriously discriminated to other races. Indeed, this kind of increasing leading by social media is ordinary in this high-speed technological world. For instance, we can easily hear plenty of rumors about celebrities and cannot distinguish which one is realistic and which one is fabricated by intentional media and imagination of public. And even normal people can be mentally attacked by the Internet users and social media conductors.

Tracing back to May 2015, in the southwestern city Chengdu in China, a female diver was brutally beaten by a male driver due to her reckless lane changing on the cross road. After the shocking video surfaced online, presenting that the man dragged the woman out of her seat, thrown on the ground and kicked her several times on the head, the public promoted a wave of anger against the assailant and urged to punish the man intensely. However, the public attitude was apparently shifted and separately divided when the other video, a footage in the man’s car showing the woman swerving “dangerously” across his lane frightened his child and his wife, was presented to the public. The public started to understand that the male driver in that situation was obviously infuriated by the woman’s abruptly changing. They could tolerate the man’s bully to a lady since they accept the explanation by the man that he was insanely out of control due to his vast indignation. Thus, a large amount of Internet users was critical of the woman and argued that the woman was “deserved to be attacked”. Plenty of comments like this posted on major news portal 163.com received a total of more than 100,000 thumbs up.%e5%b1%8f%e5%b9%95%e5%bf%ab%e7%85%a7-2016-11-10-%e4%b8%8a%e5%8d%8810-01-46%e5%b1%8f%e5%b9%95%e5%bf%ab%e7%85%a7-2016-11-10-%e4%b8%8a%e5%8d%8810-01-54

What exactly made people stop sympathizing with the woman and ignore the physical and mental hurt of the woman? Why did people blame the man drastically at first and then regard the assailant as a tolerable and understandable reaction? Was the protection of public order that prevents accidents triggered by road rage? Absolutely not. A commentary published on state-run China Youth Daily lashed out at this rhetoric which I agree most: “Cheering for the beating of the female driver is not only applauding for violence, [an act of] sexual discrimination, but also reflects the violent tendency of the society.”

As we can see, Justine Sacco conducted the irregular and sensitive post on social media and was misunderstood by others on account of lack of background information attached to the public. Besides, the incomplete evidence of a conflict divided Chinese public’s attitude toward the man’s assailant and eventually the assailant became understandable and the woman was “deserved to be beaten”. From my perspective, I agree with the Jon Ronson’s elaboration of the reason why social media can destroy both guilty and innocent people. In author’s position, “we were more frightening than Judge Ted Poe” “the powerful, crazy, cruel people were now us”, which explains that it’s us who prevail rumors through misunderstanding and pseudo-empathy of others or even groundless condemning of people who should not be punished intensely. (Jon Ronson 90)

Do we lack of empathy in online social media communication than face-to face communication? The answer is definitely yes. Although social media gives us the key to unlock the door of empathy toward superficial facts, the lack of nonverbal clues and insufficient information in online communication exaggerate the limitations of empathy. In the article, “Empathy, Justice, Law”, Martin L. Hoffman says that the limitations of empathy include that we empathize with people nearby and empathize more to physically present people than potentially unseen people. (Hoffman 251) In the article “Do social media foster or curtail adolescents’ empathy?” written by Vossen Helen, study shows that social media only affects certain aspect of empathy. “The Perception Action Model of empathy postulates that imagining emotions of others taps more into cognitive empathy while direct observation of emotions more often elicits affective empathy.” (Vossen) However, due to the insufficient and vague facts and information, people are less likely cognitive and affective to the unseen people and indistinguishable truth.

The conclusion of Vossen Helen is easy to be explained because social media enlarges our scope of knowing and recognizing of other people’s emotions, however, misunderstanding and pseudo empathy occur when we only know the surface of the facts without exploring the roots and the backgrounds. We may conceive what we see and hear, but the affective emotion emerges conditionally. We may imagine the context of the post in social media, but minority of people consider the purposes of others’ posts and meditate in what extent we should take them seriously and perceive them correspondingly. In most of time, we prefer to remain our own perspectives toward others’ thinking and judge others’ value which frequently complies with dominant consciousness. Thus, we arrogantly pretend to reveal the misspeaking and misbehaviors of others and eager to become a justice promoter. However, without empathetic understanding, we consequently become the most powerful and cruel people who can destroy others easily in the social media.


Martin L. Hoffman. “Empathy, Justice and Law”. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press. 2014. 213-254

Morton, Adam. “Empathy For The Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan, Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 318-330.

Ronson, Jon. Part Four, God That Was Awesome, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), New York, 2015

Vossen, Helen G. M., and Patti M. Valkenburg. “Do Social Media Foster Or Curtail Adolescents’ Empathy? A Longitudinal Study.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 63, 2016., pp. 118-124

Chris Luo, South China Morning Post, news, China, Man’s brutal beating of female driver divides Chinese public after different car videos emerge, Published: Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 3:22pm, Updated: Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 7:06pm



One thought on “Empathy in the Digital Age

  1. I think the source you find does support the example you provide and explains the reason why people exaggerate facts or infer something from the limited information among the post. However, there are some points that need elaborations, such as affective empathy and cognitive empathy. I believe it will be better if you give a definition of it so that readers can get a more precise view of these two concepts to differentiate it from each other. But anyway, I think your comparison of empathy between face-to-face and social media is nice and convincing, which shed light on various differences when we apply empathy in these two different circumstances.

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