Why is empathy missing in the digital age

In Jon Ronson’s article “God That Was Awesome”, he introduces the experience of Justine Sacco, who got into great trouble by making a bad joke on Twitter about how she would not get HIV in Africa because she is white (68). Her joke got her fired, and tons of people scold her harshly through the social media. However, when interviewed by the author Jon Ronson, she explained that her original intension in making the joke was to raise a joke about a dire situation that does exist and people do not pay attention to. Some people did not get her point and started to attack her on the Twitter, others act along with them, resulting in the massive retweet and unanimous criticism toward Justine. Jon Ronson analyzed this incident after meeting with Justine Sacco, and states that the most fearful people are the powerful, crazy, and cruel Internet people who blindly destroy the public figures who have not done anything wrong (90). My aim in this essay is to find a similar example of this phenomenon, and then relate a theory addressing this phenomenon to the example to find out the reason of online violence.


In 2014, Axelle Despiegelaere, a 17 year old Belgian model got herself in an identical situation just like Justine Sacco did. She became popular during the 2014 World Cup because one of her picture taken while she was cheering for Belgium went viral. Things changed dramatically when she uploaded a photo of herself holding a hunting rifle next to a dead oryx, with a caption: “Hunting is not a matter of life or death. It’s much more important than that…this was about 1 year ago…ready to hunt americans today haha” (Axelle Despiegelaere) Fans were provoked by her post, and started to attack her on social media. Although later she posted an apology saying, “I didn’t mean to offend anyone… it was a joke.” Fans did not stop accusing her for her inappropriate joke. She ended up losing her contract with L’Oreal. (Business Insider)

Many of us are confused about why people turned into some dispassionate “monsters” that have no empathetic feeling towards others on the Internet. Jane Wakefield, a reporter at BBC News, discusses the empathy in the digital age in her article “Why are people so mean to each other online?” She indicates that the Internet gives people opportunity to say things that they would not say face to face with others (Jane Wakefield). This is because people feel safe behind the computer screen, thinking the objects cannot fight back, and they also do not consider the users on the social media as real human beings, thus they have little sense of guilt when they make harsh comments, and they therefore have no empathetic feeling towards them. Jon Ronson also mentions this. Ronson says people dehumanize the people they are about to hurt, also known as cognitive dissonance in psychology (80). According to Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory, individuals seek consistency between their expectations and reality (207). The Internet attackers’ lack of empathy does not consist with their real life standard. And they therefore engage in a process called “dissonance reduction”. Festinger discusses dissonance reduction in his work A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, pointing out that there are four methods of reduction:

  1. Change behavior or cognition
  2. Justify behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition
  3. Justify behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions
  4. Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs. (Festinger)

When it comes to the case of Axelle, people who commit the cruel act towards her fit perfectly in the fourth method. When they leave mean comment about her on the Internet, they ignore the fact that Axelle is a human being, and therefore they do not feel that she is one of them and do not empathize with her at all, which reliefs them from the agony of inconsistency. So they could scold her dispassionately without any concerns that they may have misinterpreted her post, and they do not have to fear that they may destroy her life with those comments. After considering all these theories, we can understand the online attackers’ action better.


Works cited:

Ronson, Jon. “God That Was Awesome.” So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Riverhead Books, 2015 67-90

Despiegelaere, Axelle. Facebook.com/AxelleDespiegelaere, Facebook, Jul 1 2014.

“L’Oreal Severs Ties With Viral World Cup Model After Crass Hunting Photo Emerges”, Business Insider, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/loreal-fires-model-axelle-despiegelaere-after-hunting-photo-2014-7. Accessed Oct 24 2016.

Wakefield, Jane. “Why are people so mean to each other online?” BBC Technology, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31749753. Accessed Oct 24 2016.

Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, California: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Festinger, Leon. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Scientific American. 1962, 93–107

2 thoughts on “Why is empathy missing in the digital age

  1. The example that Haozhi uses is excellent support for the secondary source that I used. In my secondary source, a man by the name of P.J. Manney explains how the public reaction usually deals with an “out group”. In his example of “Axelle Despiegelaere”, she was placed into a group which would be considered to be people who act as a clear threat to the United States of America. Whether she was joking or not, Axelle’s comment about hunting for Americans was taken as a threat by many people. Once they view this as a threat, she is placed in the “out group” and people lose their sense of empathy. Since they feel as though she is in a “bad” group, begin a chain of hateful and defensive comments. This is exactly what happened.

  2. 1. This title bring up the issue of what we discussed in class. As Dustin said, the title needs to be changed completely so that it is a unique title.

    2. A very strong aspect is how he states his thesis. He is very clear and direct when he says directly what his aim is to accomplish and how this will apply to the greater arguments that he is relating to his blog post.

    3. Overall, I think the major aspects appeal well to the audience. Though, I did see a couple errors with spelling of words and the flow of sentences. As it would for any piece of writing, going over the whole post a couple more times will help to just polish it up which will make it appear nicer to readers.

    4. I think that the role of empathy/lack of empathy needs to be clarified. He brings up empathy a couple of times, though I don’t think that it is ever made clear how empathy is playing a role in the specific blog post and how empathy ties together the article we read in class and his example in particular.

    5. People, dissonance, internet, cognitive, behavior, theory. To start, I would say that the constant use of the word theory is good. Especially with the academic audience that he is aiming at, the constant mention of theory is excellent to support the larger argument. Additionally, dissonance seems to come up almost the most of any word. This is a word that readers will probably be fairly familiar with, though giving an explanation of how it will be used can help to better understand.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *