Is Online Word Truth?

Julius Olavarria | December 27, 2023

The laws that govern the realm of the internet are confusing and ambiguous. Apps like Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram have different levels of severity behind malicious posts. As someone who navigates social media daily, these undefined “laws” make me question the actions I take. Am I responsible for everything I send out there? 

It’s 2023, about to be 2024, and we live in a world where we could ruin our lives in just a few clicks. Of course, that’s extreme, but you can’t just post whatever you want. There are guidelines you must follow for your safety. You shouldn’t talk to strangers online just like you wouldn’t talk to strangers in real life, for example. 

Some say the online world, except for the anonymity users receive, has more restrictions than in real life. Even though most apps claim they protect users’ rights to freedom of speech, the online world is more restrictive than in person. Sure, some apps allow more “vocal” users to speak their truth, but in 99% of the internet world, what you say is monitored and restricted. A “hot take,” as they say, might be too hot for some: colleges may not accept you into their school for something you wanted to get off your chest, even when it is normal to say in real life- to your friends, for example.

That’s why the saying “don't say anything online that you wouldn't want plastered on a billboard with your face on it” was created- the room you have for error is marginal, and if you make a mistake, it’s likely 100s of people will see it before you delete it. Once the post is shared or saved by a few you can’t control where it goes: it spreads like wildfire. So, if you mess up once, you’re done for: no more college, job, or privacy- the life you once knew is gone forever. 

To protect sensitive users and maintain a “safe online space,” major online companies exercise mass censorship. Of course, malicious intent- racism, hate speech, or other forms of unproductive content needs to be removed immediately. But in general, these are not the intents of users’ posts. They suffer censorship for exercising their 1st Amendment rights online- this is a problem. 

I believe the internet is a breeding ground for change. Whilst upholding the “safe place” policy, activists promoting change have their content censored. They don’t get the views they hope for because of the harsh material they post. Believe it or not, a lot of bad things are out there in the world. A lot of bad things need changing. If users’ posts can’t be real, down to earth, and open, the audience is lost and no one cares. Activists call for change through paragraphs on the internet, but no one has the attention span for reading in this day and age. We need videos, pictures, and short summaries that capture the attention of viewers and compel them to act. Even if the pictures, videos, or other content is unpleasing, the world’s not all sunshine and rainbows. 

This leaves the question of the article: is what I say online really my word? Is my online word just as true as it is in person? To what extent does this apply?

The kid who got expelled from school and the online activist have something in common. In the security of their own homes, they turn on their computers, ready to share their “hot takes” with the world. They type away at the plastic keyboard, voicing their distasteful opinions to their internet communities, and go to sleep feeling satisfied. They wake up in the morning with 1000s of enemies, comments, and users that want to ruin their lives. Their posts offended them, they’re upset, and they want blood.

A key similarity is that they both feel comfortable posting their content online but wouldn’t in person. They sit inside their homes with a sense of security from the real world. They feel as if they can say whatever they please without immediate repercussions from people around them. 

People who aren’t as active, for example casual browsers, are likely a part of one or several group chats. In this scenario, as it likely takes place on Snapchat, is what they say held to the same severity as the activist and expelled kids? The activists and expelled kids are outspoken social media users, different from the casual browsers, but with the same punishments: an unfortunate yet true fact. 

For example, the browsers could “repost” a meme online. They scroll until they see something funny. They click a few buttons, repost the meme, and don’t think anything of it. 

On TikTok, however, people can see what you repost as it’s attached to your public profile. People can even like your repost action. The repost even shows up in the comment section of the video for the whole internet to see. 

Scrolling on your profile, someone may get offended by memes, content, or other niche reposts. Things you find funny may be offensive. Reposting doesn’t just save the video but tells others that you liked the video, which is dangerous. Your repost may be inappropriate or something you wouldn’t dare say in person. In this way, online word is not truth- the action of a simple repost, however, can demand a lot in person despite the user’s intentions.

All in all, the online world- the way the internet translates to real life- is convoluted. The repost example as well as the distinction between causal and active social media users shows us that we are all equal under the internet. Everyone can get in trouble for what they say and everyone can be hurt by their actions online. What’s scary, however, is that what we say online isn’t our truth- it isn’t what we would say to thousands of people in person. The caveat, the point I’m making, is that people expect the truth: what you do, say, and post online is demanded in person. A few clicks, reposts, and comments don’t mean anything in the online world but do in real life. People exploring your online presence might ask you to back up online actions dated back years ago, actions that you never gave second thoughts to. 

It’s a scary world we live in, but what’s even scarier is the increasing connection between the online world and the actual world. People naturally expect online words as truth. Things people have done on the internet years ago are brought up now more than ever. People who are affected by this do not speak online truth, they do not want their online words translated in person, and do not want to be scrutinized for their online actions. They use the internet for its primary function. 

They click a few buttons without realizing what it could mean- they do this because it’s not in-person: it’s the Internet, separate from reality. Expecting online words as in-person truths defeats the purpose of the internet. The Internet is supposed to be separate from real life, a place where people can collaborate, change, and converse without in-person barriers.  

The moment we treat everything online as real life is the moment the internet and reality are connected. Maintaining distinct internet and reality spheres is necessary for our humanity- the direction we’re headed proves the opposite. We need to change this mindset for the betterment of our world, future, and Internet usage.