Empathy and trust in communicating online

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has announced the successful proposals to be funded under the Empathy and Trust In Communicating ONline (EMoTICON) call.

While the study of trust and empathy in social situations is an established area of enquiry, relatively little research has addressed the ways that such issues occur in, and subsequently shape, online communities. The EMoTICON call addresses this area with a specific focus on digital communications, funding research which will help scientists understand how empathy and trust are developed, maintained, transformed and lost in social media interactions.

Commenting on the successful proposals, ESRC Chief Executive Professor Paul Boyle said: “As a new generation grows up in a world where digital interaction is the norm, there is so much to understand about how our identities and relationships are shaped by our online activities. I’m delighted that the ESRC is funding these projects, backing researchers from a variety of disciplines and institutions to address these fascinating issues, and building UK research capacity in these areas for the future.”

The projects were commissioned after an intensive ‘sandpit’, which gathered participants in an interactive, week-long event which encouraged creative thinking and allowed researchers to collaborate in designing research projects that tackle the challenges faced in these areas. These relationships will be further developed through the EMoTICON network, which will provide a channel for the projects and other interested scholars to share their expertise and findings from their research.

Funding for the projects is provided by the ESRC together with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI).

The successful projects are:

A Shared Space and a Space for Sharing – Professor Peter Bath, University of Sheffield

This project looks at the online behaviour of people affected by natural disasters, terminal disease, addiction and other issues. People in these circumstances are extremely vulnerable, and may seek support that could make the difference between life and death – making it crucial to establish trust and empathy very quickly. The project brings together researchers from backgrounds including sociology, computer sciences, philosophy, and information science, interacting with organisations including UK charities, international NGOs and health providers. Understanding the way that trust and empathy work in online circumstances may help to transform how resources and aid are distributed both locally and globally. Researchers at the University of Birmingham, the University of Kent, the University of Nottingham, the University of Edinburgh and King’s College London will also work on the project.

Loneliness in the Digital Age (LIDA) – Professor Michael Wilson, Loughborough University

LIDA seeks to map experiences of loneliness in both online and offline environments and explore the potential for creative interventions to help manage periods of loneliness, working with groups including migrant workers and personnel stationed overseas. The project will explore what commonalities these groups have in how they experience and manage moments of loneliness, and examine individual differences in how the home, the workplace, and other surroundings influence these. The second phase of the project will focus on developing new technologies to counteract negative experiences related to loneliness and separation identified in the first phase of work. Researchers at the University of Bath, the University of Exeter, the University of Lincoln and Newcastle University will also work on the project. 

The Trust Map – Dr Karen Salt, University of Aberdeen

Digital resources are powerful tools that can aid in the process of community building. These issues have been examined separately, but no previous research has drawn all of the strands together, addressing the development of, and relations between, power, (mis)trust, empathy and exclusion/inclusion. This project examines the ways that trust (and mistrust) can lead to social exclusion and imbalances within minority communities in the UK, using both large-scale data analysis and community-based interaction. By investigating the interplay between trust, power, and empathic behaviour between communities and social (in)equality, the project tests the potential of online resources for mitigating social injustice. Researchers at Durham University, Newcastle University and Northumbria University will also work on the project.

CuRAtOR: Challenging online fear And OtherRing – Professor Shaun Lawson, University of Lincoln

Fear is spread by a range of agents including the media, government, and industry, with a good deal stemming from mistrust of ‘the Other’: individuals or groups that are ‘not like us’. There are questions regarding how ‘Othering’ translates into effects in real contexts, and what role online media has in spreading fear. With social media, fear is not just delivered in a top-down manner, but now also from the grassroots level via platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. This project focuses on cultures of fear propagated through online ‘Othering’ and how this leads to mistrust of groups or communities. Researchers at the University of Bath, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Nottingham and Newcastle University will also work on the project.

A Taxonomy of UK Crowdfunding and Examination of the Potential of Trust and Empathy in Project Success – Dr Jo Briggs, Northumbria University

This research will scope online UK crowdfunding platforms and practices during a period of rapid economic growth and sector consolidation. The taxonomy will identify the individual domains of UK crowdfunding activity and their interrelations and the various motivations of project 'funders'. Further analyses of communication within platforms’ social networks, among and between project ‘founders’ and funders, will examine if and in what ways trust is signalled, built and lost and empathy developed and used in this online crowdfunding context, and any potential impact this has on funders’ behaviour. Research will also take place at Queen’s University Belfast.



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1.      The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

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The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.