'Thoughts and Prayers' and Empty Empathy on Social Media

What it really means to shout goodwill into the void of the internet.

Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

I logged onto Facebook recently and saw the following notification: “Steve donated his birthday to a good cause.” Well, good for you Steve.

Steve’s gesture left me torn, and torn about being torn in the first place (and so on). If I don’t “donate my birthday,” will people think I’m failing in my civic and moral duty as a human to...donate my birthday to a cause on Facebook? Am I evil incarnate for neglecting to do so? And If I donate my birthday just because Steve did it, does it make the gesture less noble?

Performative goodwill and empathy online are complicated. Between natural disasters, mass shootings and terrorist attacks, the last few months have felt like a never-ending stream of tragedies, and of course, the accompanying posts of “thoughts and prayers,” links to donate to related charities and general musings on how awful our world is on social media. (Which, to be fair, is a valid point.)

This creates so many questions and conflicting opinions. Why do we post things like this? What impact does it have on the people who scroll past our posts, or on the offline world for that matter? Is it “genuine”? And if it’s not, does it matter? Do we have to express our thoughts about every tragedy that happens? Are we just shouting positive but meaningless sentiments into the void that is the internet?

In this instance of performative goodwill, you might hope “donating a birthday” could start a domino effect of giving. But it could also shame people into feeling that they’re not doing enough, and perhaps falsely equate that clicking “donate my birthday” meets your goodwill quota for the year.

But this signaling of virtue plays into a wider, weirder web of what it means to donate a birthday or post “thoughts and prayers” online after a tragedy. At their best, performative goodwill and empathy can be inspiring and cathartic, and could even encourage others to take action offline. At worst, it seems people are just sharing to share: getting the sentiment out of their system because of an ethical obligation to not seem or feel like a Bad Person.

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There may be an evolutionary explanation as to why we feel compelled to take to our statuses when something bad happens. (And we could write a whole separate story on the element of proving your “wokeness” about current events online.) “I think people are motivated to offer prosocial gestures primarily because of social norms,” Adam Waytz, PhD, an associate professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told me via email. “We see other people doing something and we follow along because we are social animals.”

That’s especially true on social media, since we can see what people are doing and literally follow along instantaneously. (It’s also the nature of the internet at large: trends catch on, they go viral, and we feel obliged to either get on board or step aside.) Donating a birthday is a public act, as is posting “thoughts and prayers” or posting a status calling out those who post “thoughts and prayers” because doing so isn’t changing anything. (If you spend time on social media, you’ve probably seen the recent backlash to politicians who post “thoughts and prayers” after preventable tragedies, like the mass shooting in Las Vegas.)

And in both the virtual and actual world, it’s beneficial for us to do things that make people like us. This plays into a theory called impression management that far predates social media, Emily C. Weinstein, a Harvard researcher who studies how adolescents use social media, told me. In a nutshell, impression management means that we control how others view us, or what impression we give off, and how we’d very much like that impression to be positive. Weinstein notes that social media networks are “ripe environments for impression management, because they offer curatorial control and ongoing opportunities for modifying self-presentation,” as she wrote in this study published in the International Journal of Communications.

That’s something we’ve all experienced: we know that what we put on social media, much like what we project out into the world around us, signals our interests. It’s a performance, one that’s not inherently good or bad. In the same way that we put bumper stickers on our cars to signal political affiliation or a child’s permanent place on the honor role, we share things on social media that help other people understand what we believe in and who we are—or who we’d like people to think we are.

But this is complicated by the notion that social media is like an echo chamber: our online communities often reflect and support our existing interests and opinions. This means, in many cases, you’re probably preaching to (and trying to impress) the choir.

That doesn’t change the fact that many of us automatically get on the goodwill and empathy bandwagon when we see others doing it. Add that to a 24-hour news cycle that's constantly covering tragedies and you’ve got something like an auto-responder of empathy for bad news. “Over time, these actions become like a script we follow,” Waytz wrote. “If a tragedy happens, part of the script is to offer thoughts and prayers. These gestures are extremely low cost, so they are easy to do,” Waytz continued.

That’s basically the definition of slacktivism, defined by one study as low-risk, low-cost social media use meant to “raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity,” the researchers from Michigan State wrote.

“There is a lot of debate over whether these online gestures translate into meaningful prosocial behavior, and so far there is not a ton of evidence they do,” Waytz wrote. He pointed to two different papers, one that found joining a cause on social media didn’t translate into offline activism. (Like any new area of research, though, the findings are murky. The other research he cited suggests it’s possible that “slacktivism” can make people engaged in the real world.)

In the first study, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the London School of Economics and Political Science looked at people who joined a Save Darfur Cause on Facebook in 2014, and whether this translated into donation or action offline.

They wrote that while “the personal significance of this gesture to participants or the symbolic impact of the movement to onlookers is impossible to estimate accurately,” only a very small percentage of people engaged in anything besides joining the group. “Despite the chorus of voices touting the transformative (and even democratizing) potential of social media, when it came to recruiting for—and donating to—the Save Darfur Cause, the most popular social network site in the world appears to have hardly mattered,” they wrote.

Of course it’s important to note that movements can start and flourish online and translate into serious, real-world action: the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, the #Me Too movement, to name just a few. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Those are examples of the internet and social media being used as a catalyst for progress, not a vessel for one-off posts and generic responses to current events.

But does this make expressing goodwill online unimportant? And perhaps a more poignant question is when, and how, we decide not to express goodwill online, and how complicated that can be. If we choose not to post, do people think we don’t care? Is social media silence equated with either ignorance or a lack of interest? And here’s another ethically murky, $64,000 question: how long do you wait after a disaster to start posting regularly scheduled programming on your profiles? Three days? A week? And if you’re posting thoughts and prayers first just so you don’t feel like a terrible person, can people tell? (In my experience, yes they can.)

And this wades into the very questionable practice of deciding whether a tragedy is “bad enough” to merit a post from you. At face-value this seems horrifying, but on a practical level, it’s a question many people (perhaps unconsciously) ask themselves. There are tragedies every hour, every minute, all over the world. Which ones do you express condolences for? What about the ones you don’t?

It seems then, that rather than trying to determine if we should be posting about every bad thing that happens in the world or judging ourselves if we choose not to comment, it might be worthwhile to stress less about how we respond online than how we engage offline.

We all follow people on social media that post about events, news, or causes that they probably don’t care all that much about. But there will always be that person, and we should remember that for some people, shouting goodwill into the void of social media may be cathartic. It might make them feel like they’re making a difference. And in that sense, is it our job to tell them they’re probably not? 

Social Media, Technology