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  • Writer's pictureMatt Himsworth

Where is the empathy going?

People who are in the news or have public profiles very often do see all the comments, so why does it seem that so many people have lost the ability to empathise?

If the unimaginable ever happened to me and I lost my partner then I know I would be very slow to turn to social media. There would come a time though, because I believe that we keep those we have lost alive by talking about them and remembering them, that I would want to look at the tributes, the memories and the love sent by those online.


The freedom to mourn without fear of mockery and cruelty seems so obvious and inalienable a right that I scarcely need to say it. That would be a pain that would be difficult to comprehend. Even more so if the cruel mocking targeted a physical challenge someone had faced their entire life.


I’ve long felt that empathy is a quality that is dramatically lacking in so many currently. Social media rewards hatred by putting the most replied to comments to the top of posts on Instagram and dropping toxic rows into our feeds on X.


So when the actor Warwick Davis tragically lost his beloved wife Samantha and I saw the BBC News post a lovely image of the Davis family I found, with deep regret, that I couldn’t help but note the top few comments.


What brings a person, when they hear news of a tragedy, to immediately think it is appropriate to make a disablist joke? How strong is the urge to “do numbers” or have “banter” that all empathy goes out of the window?


I have long said to those I love (myself included!) – when you see something that makes you angry on social media, try not to engage with it. Engagement (even just looking at a post or comment) tells the platform’s algorithms that this is a successful post and the engagement, even when it is people angry and scolding, rewards the original comment.


One of the “jokes” (by “Dan”) which appears at the top, and which mocks Samantha’s dwarfism, had 44 replies. Some were other morally questionable individuals enjoying the pile on but the overwhelming majority were outraged users. Those 44 replies cemented the comment as one of the top comments and will now be the post that Warwick, or his children or other loved ones, will inevitably see if they ever decide to go back and check the tributes which were posted about Samantha after her death was announced.

There is no question that Warwick has struggled terribly (and understandably) at this time, as these X Posts attest:


One thing I know from working with people in the public eye – they very often do see the comments. The keyboard warriors like Dan no doubt see themselves as some kind of Jimmy Carr with an iPhone pumping subversive humour onto Instagram with no consequences and no victim. The truth is quite different.


The Davis family should be free to mourn Samantha’s passing and to publicly celebrate her life without fear of being dragged into further grief, anger and frustration by people who wish to humiliate and abuse their dearly missed loved one.


Of course, it’s not just the Davis family who are impacted by conduct like this. Disablist language on the internet is a serious problem and the way in which those with dwarfism and other similar conditions are treated has long been a problem, way before social media. What social media does is ventilate the hateful mockery that exists and means that, if you are a person with dwarfism, you don’t have the same safe space to express yourself as others do. Seeing hatred and mockery is unavoidable.


This short video from disability advocate and filmmaker Vi shows the extent of the issue (language warning - Vi is angry and she swears):


There will be those who say I should lighten up, it’s only a bit of fun and that free speech is important.


Free speech is important. We are free to express words and thoughts as we wish … unless and until that hurts others. It’s no different to the freedom we have with our bodies. We can do whatever we like with our bodies unless and until that hurts others.


Can I dance like a plonker? Yes.

Can I run into a crowded room wielding a cricket bat? No. It hurts people.


Can I publish this blog? Yes.

Can I spout disablist language on the internet in response to a terrible tragedy? No. It hurts people.


It’s that final argument about freedom of expression which brings in my final frustration. I work with a number of football clubs who (rightly) engage third party tech companies to identify and block harmful language which is posted on their Instagram posts. Sexbots, racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, much of this will be picked up and blocked on the feeds of Premier League football clubs.


Not so on the BBC’s feeds. It may be a cost consideration (the BBC would no doubt be criticised for spending licence fee money on removing Instagram comments) or it may be BBC sensitivity on free speech. The most virulent of conspiracy theorists regularly attack the BBC. If their comments started to disappear from the corporation’s Instagram feed then no doubt there would be cries of censorship – and so we have it, our nation’s trusted broadcaster has a social media feed with comments and replies which are full of filth and bile.


Every time Leigh Nicol gives an interview to the BBC we brace ourselves for the comments. The last one, with BBC Scotland, didn’t disappoint with a number of inadequate men posting the disgusting stuff that Leigh is very adept at dealing with now.


It is sad but we can all play our little part in making it better. If you see hateful content that angers you, don’t engage with it: report it or ignore it.


And to those posting these comments. In the UK it is a criminal offence to post a comment which is “grossly offensive”, I can’t think of any other description of disablist mockery of a family facing tragedy. Dan is based in the UK. I would strongly recommend that he, and others like him, think again before searching for numbers and banter. Some empathy goes a long way.


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