Demeaning words online–Exaggerated empathy’s limitation protected by anonymous mask

As  the development of digital age moves forward, social media is becoming a new tool of information deliverer. Compared to traditional style of information dissemination such as letters or talks face-to face, social media is more convenient and instant considering its public transparency and accessibility. Also, people are able to give quick response towards hot issues that have raised wide-spread concern. However, affected by in-group preference of empathy and “mask protection” provided by virtual world, people may make hostile and extreme reactions on social media.


People’s comments on Mack Horton

As a notable example of this, people’s response to Mack Horton’s rude remarks on
Sun Yang in Rio Olympic deserves our attention. According to
Global Times, “Hours before the game, Horton called Sun a “drug cheat,” and in an interview after the game, he defended his accusation that Sun was a drug user”. Almost instantly, people’s outrage, especially those from Sun Yang’s fans are poured in Horton’s Instagram, leading to over 500,000 comments to condemn his loss of Olympic spirits. People are requesting Horton’s apology towards Sun Yang while some insults Horton’s as a “dead man”. ABC News also writes an article titled as “Gold medal winner Mack Horton trolled online after calling out ‘drug cheat’ Sun Yang” to describe such kind of responses from social media. As pointed out, “Chinese fans have taken the grudge match into their own hands, attacking Horton on his various social media accounts using the hashtag #apologizetosunyang”. However, the truth behind Sun Yang’s positive test is, according to Global Times, “He was using a medication for his heart problem, but unfortunately, it contained a substance which had just been banned as a new type of stimulant” while related departments have not updated that rule. So, on one hand, Mack was not lying based on the existing fact two years ago. On the other hand, Sun should not be labelled as drug cheat since he did not take banned medicine for this game.


Cyber bullying on social media

While reasoning works fine for both sides, why do some people react so extremely on social media with demeaning wor
ds? To illustrate, from my perspective, there are two reasons. To begin with, the in-group preference of empathy, I think, contributes mostly to people’s anger towards Mack. Most of Sun’s fans are from China. When it’s not clear either side is right, people tend to choose the “familiar group” for empathy. As Fuchsman, Ken indicated, “Empathy is most likely to emerge with those with whom we are familiar, those that are an ‘us’”.  At the same time, the anonymous identity on social media somehow removes some of people’s misgivings for posting extreme comments. This means, they realized that in most cases, they don’t have to pay for what they have said on social media. My opinion is shared by Ellie Lisitsa whose instance is that “They don’t have to feel the other person’s tension or convey their own. They don’t have to suppress it or deal with it in any way”. This mask provides people with a hide of themselves so that they can remove the barrier which they tend to have in face-to-face real life. And then as Ellie Lisitsa emphasized, “A sense of right and wrong, responsibility for one’s actions, can easily vanish.” What’s more, as explained by L. Mark Carrier, “The lack of nonverbal cues in the online world contributes to overall lower levels of virtual empathy compared to the real world”, which leads to excessive empathy for Sun and deficient empathy for Horton.

Work cited:

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

Fuchsman, Ken. “Empathy and Humanity.” The Journal of psychohistory, vol. 42, no. 3, 2015., pp. 176.

L. Mark Carrier, “Virtual empathy: Positive and negative impacts of going online upon empathy in young adults”

Ellie Lisitsa, “The Digital Age: Empathy In Utopia” November 22, 2013,

ABC News Site, “Rio 2016: Gold medal winner Mack Horton trolled online after calling out ‘drug cheat’ Sun Yang”,

Global Times, “Horton displays no goodwill in remarks over his rival”,

The video of Horton’s remark on Sun Yang:

The picture of Mack Horton’s post and people’s reactions:’s-instagram-is-trolled-by-angry-chinese-users/7698766



One thought on “Demeaning words online–Exaggerated empathy’s limitation protected by anonymous mask

  1. In the passage, the author illustrates that compared to “face to face” connection and communication, information through social media provides less opportunity to people to stand in the same points as the character and create solid empathy. To elaborate, the author uses an example related to Chinese monopoly searching engine Baidu. Baidu provides wrong therapy information that makes Zexi Wei spend bunch of money to cure cancer but eventually failed. The rumors is ruthless and criticize that it’s Zexi’s fault to trust Baidu. The author did a great job of adapting this example to his main point since from the story we learn people can not feel the same way Zexi feels due to the lack of emotion on face, the body language and so on. Furthermore, the author says the because the less responsibility of making comments online, people usually comments without any deep thinking and understanding. For the most part, the author connects his example with Morton’s idea really well, but if the author can explain the definition of pseudo in the second paragraph and separate the conclusion he makes, the structure and items can be clearer to the readers.

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