It’s the thought that counts – even when you’re online

Digital campaigns that encourage empathy still have long-term positive effects

US comedian Anthony Jeselnik doesn't care much for the expression "too soon". The "Dark Prince of Comedy" has made his name in part by posting jokes about tragic events on social media the day they take place.

For example, his tweet a couple of hours after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 read: “There are some lines that just shouldn’t be crossed today. Especially the finish line.” As you might imagine, not everyone think’s he’s funny.

Comic timing notwithstanding, he has directed some interesting accusations at his critics, many of whom also use social media soon after a tragedy but for different reasons, namely, to express sympathy or empathy with those affected.

In particular, Jeselnik takes issue with the phrase, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you”, describing it as nothing more than “empty sentiment” designed to draw more attention to the author’s perceived humanity than the tragedy itself.


He may have a point. Most people – other than journalists – didn’t consider it prudent to express their feelings publicly about every event until technology made it so easy.

It also doesn’t take much effort to create a convincing, albeit disingenuous online persona. “Like” a good cause here. Done. Sign up for some free green newsletter there. Done. In principle, you appear to be a wonderful, thoughtful person.

Everyone knows at least one online crusader who, at any given moment, is advocating for animal rights, Syrian refugees, the protection of the Irish language, “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” simultaneously. Some people truly care. But given how easy it is to appear conscientious online, are others just taking advantage of the free PR?

Social responsibility

According to Claire Diaz-Ortiz, author of

Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time

, with bigger social networks comes greater social responsibility.

“The best thing we can do is . . . realise that living in an online world means we have larger social networks, and thus larger social obligations, than our forefathers,” she says. “We need to realise the greater obligation to share our empathy since we are more informed about others’ struggles.”

Research also indicates links between "liking" something on Facebook and actual changes in behaviour down the road.

"Connecting to causes through social media does have value because it encourages people to express empathy, and that's a positive in the world all on its own," says Prof Brad Love from the University of Texas at Austin College of Communication.

Love’s research focuses on the persuasive capabilities of mass media, and he has noticed some interesting trends, particularly among generations who have lived in a digital world their entire lives.

“Millennials in particular are almost forced to engage in lots of impression management online. They are trying to influence how others view them, a sort of interpersonal public relations, if you will,” he says.

This has been shown in research closer to home. A 2014 paper, Who Likes You and Why? A Typology of Facebook Fans, co-authored by Dr Elaine Wallace and Dr Mike Hogan of NUI Galway, identifies one group of fans as "self-expressives".

“Self-expressives are high in self-monitoring, and they have lower self-esteem than other clusters . . . Moreover, although they claim that they ‘like’ due to a genuine interest in the brand, their main reason for becoming a fan is image creation. For these fans, concerned about opinions of others, the brand may play a symbolic role, allowing them to create an ideal self on Facebook,” they write.

Prof Love, however, still believes engagement of any kind with worthy campaigns is still meaningful. “If part of this focus involves time spent learning about problems in the world and potential solutions, that’s a net positive,” he says.

So our “thoughts and prayers” aren’t hurting the internet and “liking” something may not be entirely pointless after all. But what is digital empathy really worth other than the paper it’s written on?

"Just because you click on something supporting a cause doesn't mean you've done anything other than express your support at a superficial level," says George Roter, co-founder and chief executive of Engineers Without Borders Canada and "Participation Sherpa" at Mozilla. "It might appear innocent enough, but my worry is that our collectivism is actually releasing us from the pressure of deeper commitment to change.

“A lot of the changes we want to see require more than ‘liking’ something or even donating money. I appreciate that some people who donate money to charities do so even when they cannot afford to, but the act of giving money from the comfort of one’s home will not fundamentally alter your world view, which in my experience is a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, aspect of affecting real change.”

Challenging issues

While some NGOs, businesses and even individuals will take the distance their message spreads online as evidence of success, those metrics may distract from the fact that tangible impact is wanting. After all, empathy online is mostly passive.

“It’s not enough to simply ‘navigate with grace’,” says Roter. “Many challenging issues require fundamental personal changes in people. Most of us are guilty of a little personal ‘good washing’ every now and again online. We will ‘like’ charities or follow good people because it makes us feel better about ourselves. But it has little or no effect.”

Not everyone is so downbeat. "The impact of support causes on social media can cut both ways," says psychologist Art Markman, author of Smart Change. "That is, it has the potential to make people either more or less willing to engage in actions in the world, depending on how it is being used.

“There is significant research into the ‘escalation of commitment’ tendency which suggests getting people to perform a small action can prime them to do something more significant in the future. A business that puts a sign in its window supporting a cause, for example, is more likely to sponsor that organisation later. However, in order for this to work, the small action (liking a cause) needs to be followed up with specific requests to do something more significant (like donate).”

Unintended effect

For people who already believe in a particular cause, however, social media campaigns can have an unintended effect.

“These people may feel like they want to perform some kind of action,” says Markman. “If they are then asked to ‘like’ the cause on social media, they may feel that this public demonstration of support is an adequate action, making them less likely to perform additional actions (like donate).”

Social media providers are in the unique position of being able to turn passive empathy into the more active variety. For example, by providing tangible ways to engage in a cause through an online platform – Facebook's "empathy" button doesn't count – that moment of solidarity people feel upon hearing tragic news could be turned into action or, at the very least, a financial contribution, rather than just a "thumbs up". Digital giants such as Google and Facebook realise modern consumers want to be associated with "good" companies. Being empathetic makes good business sense.

"We're currently at a moment in history where it's possible for big corporate successes to be based on empathy," says Dean Thompson, start-up management consultant and chief technology officer of NoWait. "The big firms of the past – Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Ford – we didn't think about them that way.

"More recent successes, however, are considered to be in part empathetically motivated: Apple, Amazon and Facebook, for example. But you know that empathy must try and survive alongside those firms' darker sides."