By Joel Schlaudt, Creative Writer & Designer

It truly is a 21st century phenomenon when tweets make the front-page news, but the rise of social media has caused it to become the new normal, especially in the last 4 years. With that phenomenon comes a host of difficulties and questions. Take, for example, the most recent incident involving Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.

On May 27, 2020, in response to Virginia Governor Northam’s face mask law, Falwell tweeted: “I was adamantly opposed to the mandate from @GovernorVA requiring citizens to wear face masks until I decided to design my own. If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, but only if this picture of Governor Blackface himself is on it!”

The accompanying picture was a screenshot of an online listing for custom face masks printed with an image of a young white male in blackface and another dressed in full KKK regalia.

Obviously, the tweet caused quite a stir, landing Falwell and his wife an interview with news personality, Eric Bolling. That’s where it got interesting. In the interview, Falwell offered no apology and admitted no fault with the tweet, instead defending it and urging others to buy the mask as well. His wife, however, was not so reckless. She said several times that she would not wear the mask and even that she did not approve of her husband’s tweet. A laughing Falwell himself confirmed that she “didn’t like my tweet.”

So someone made an insensitive comment that their significant other disapproved of; that’s hardly new. The difference comes in the audience and the effect. Between the initial tweet, the Fox interview, and the resulting social media uproar, millions have seen the tweet and passed judgment, not only on Falwell and his family but on the university he controls and its 100,000+ students. Falwell’s one comment is negatively affecting thousands of others, including the woman he loves.

The internet has unlocked new levels of self-expression and granted individuals unprecedented platforms. Arguably, it ushered in the golden age of “free speech.” But with every right comes responsibility, something that Falwell is either oblivious of or choosing to ignore. Yes, he is completely free to make such a tweet, but should he? The image he portrays online reflects onto all those under his influence — from his wife to the janitor who cleans the university lecture halls. Lately, that reflection has been poor, yet it is shaping how the public will understand and treat those it touches. An insensitive tweet or unfiltered comment from this man could mean a rejected job application for a recent Liberty graduate.

The truth is, no one is independent in their actions. Our existences — particularly in the age of the internet — are so interconnected that everything we do affects one another, particularly for someone with the level of influence and notoriety of Jerry Falwell. But how do we know the difference between speaking up and saying too much? Where do we draw the line between “could” and “should?”

A good place to start is with the people around us. Before posting, run your thoughts by your spouse, roommate, or friend. Find someone whose opinion is relevant to the issue in question. They can give you another perspective, pointing out how your comment could be perceived by someone else or could affect others in a way you had not considered. If they have a problem with it, then maybe you should too. Is one post really worth damaging a life-long relationship, or even worse, thousands of them?

The moral of the story is, think before you tweet. Or post. Or Snap. Lives have been ruined in less than 140 characters.

Not everything should be put online for the world to see. Some discussions are better had in intimate settings with mutual respect and trust, two things that are truly mythical on the web. Use those around you as a sounding board for your potentially controversial posts and, if in doubt, don’t. It’s not rocket science; it’s communication.