Sharing Sensitive Content Online

Video credit: You are not alone in your loneliness │ Jonny Sun  – posted by TED on YouTube



Many conversations about “sensitive content” online revolve around keeping things like your bank information or your phone number secure and out of the hands of fraudsters. However, sensitive content goes beyond just your data and can refer to any type of authentic disclosure that includes vulnerable information about the person sharing the story or the story’s subject(s).

There is no hard and fast definition of sensitive content, as certain topics feel more vulnerable to some people than others. For example, while some members of the LGBTQ+ community share freely and openly about their experiences with their sexualities and gender identities, other community members are much more reluctant to share about these subjects for any number of reasons, including fear of the repercussions that could occur in their real lives. These consequences could include not only social pressure and censure from family members and friends, but even real danger if the person sharing these opinions is from a region in which LGBTQ+ rights are limited and identities are policed.

There is a lot of debate about whether posting sensitive content online is a positive, empowering action or one that further isolates people and can even put people in danger of incurring serious legal consequences. It’s important to consider all sides of the argument before you decide whether sharing sensitive content online is right for you.

Should I share?

In much of the discourse around public sharing of sensitive content, the opinion exists that people only share emotionally vulnerable content in order to get attention or sympathy from others online, as exemplified by this article from Rolling Stone. People with this belief claim that those who share sensitive content online often disingenuously exaggerate their problems in an attempt to seek greater validation and gain online followers and fame. While this may be true to an extent, there are many reasons why people would choose to share sensitive content online.

One important reason to share is that sharing can increase empathy and open discussion about difficult topics. Open, honest online discussions about challenging, often stigmatized topics such as mental health can educate those who do not understand these topics and let those experiencing such difficulties know that they are not alone, actions which can help to nurture empathy and create a sense of community in online spaces. The sense of camaraderie that vulnerable online sharing can provide is thought by researchers at York University to empower people in isolating situations to find connection with others who share their experiences. According to Psychology Today, there is even some hope that sharing may help people who have gone through traumatic events such as the COVID-19 pandemic to experience post-traumatic growth and build resilience.

Okay, I want to share. How should I do it?

If sharing in this way seems like it could be beneficial for you, there are strategies that you can adopt to share while also better protecting your privacy, though it is worth noting that none of the methods listed below are completely private. Sharing vulnerable stories on a profile associated with your name and image, such as a Facebook or Instagram account, is one way to share, but some people may wish to share in a way that is not associated with their real name in order to keep such personal details away from their online profiles, which are often viewed by real life friends, family members, and employers. Here are some ways that you can share more anonymously:

  • Share on websites like Reddit or Tumblr: These websites are more suited to anonymous sharing than sites like Facebook or Instagram since you are under no obligation to post about your true identity on them. Reddit’s content policy in particular has strict rules against sharing other people’s personal information.
  • Share using a throwaway account: A throwaway account is an account that you post on only once and then delete, meaning that your sensitive content would not be linked to your primary account.
  • Share in a specialized online community: Reddit and Tumblr have specific communities dedicated to a huge variety of topics, making it likely that you will be able to find a community in which to share openly and in which you can find others sharing openly too. These communities often have specific guidelines around sharing within and outside of the community, so be sure that you are up to date on their etiquette before you post or share anything within these groups.


Should I Not Share?

Though there may be real benefits to sharing your experiences with others online, it is important to consider the risks associated with sharing vulnerable information publicly before you post. Some researchers claim that rather than helping to form connections, sharing openly on social media can actually make people lonelier. As Rider University psychology professor John Suler explains, “[o]ne of the biggest risks of sharing mental health information online is the possibility that doing so will turn into a crutch, preventing the person from seeking out ‘real’ social interactions. This may include avoiding therapy from a professional who could provide comprehensive treatment”. While online interactions to share mental health experiences can be valuable, they are not comparable to in-person socializing, meaning that people who primarily communicate with others online about their mental health run the risk of isolating themselves and depending on the advice of non-professionals. This can lead to increased loneliness and even worsening of symptoms in extreme cases.

Additionally, while sharing sensitive content a few times may have its benefits, there are some people who make sharing vulnerable content their brand in order to connect with their followers more deeply. According to a Vice news report, people who consistently share this type of content sometimes experience burnout and worsening of symptoms from the dual stresses of constant content creation and from the emotional labour of publicly sharing content that is deeply personal.

Aside from the interpersonal toll of sharing sensitive content online, there are external factors that are important to consider as well. Your may be the one posting, but the things that you post could have real life effects for not only you, but also for those close to you and those you post about. This is particularly important to consider in a political context: when sharing your opinions on topics like politics or human rights, whether it is on a personal social media account or in an assignment that might be submitted to Turnitin, it is key to remember that your post will be visible not only to your followers but to everyone, including those who monitor social media for various governmental regimes. Posting information or images about protests, dissident political opinions, and similar topics can lead to legal trouble for you, your loved ones, and/or those who are captured by your post, especially in countries that exercise strict control over freedom of expression or are facing internal turmoil. One troubling example of the legal consequences of online sharing is detailed in a Washington Post report, which states that photographs taken during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 in the United States that were shared on Instagram have lead to arrests of activists and protestors. It is important to be aware of the real legal consequences your post could have in highly politicized situations.

What else should I be aware of before I share?

Here are a few more things to keep in mind while deciding whether or not to post:

  • You are never truly anonymous: This fact remains true even if you post on Reddit or Tumblr or use a throwaway account. It is still possible that people viewing your posts might recognize you through the details of the stories that you tell, your image, or even the email address associated with your account (if that is publicly available). The risk may be small in some cases, but it is nevertheless possible to be discovered by determined internet sleuths or hackers. Authorities such as police forces also sometimes have access to things like IPS and information about site users, meaning that even “anonymous” users’ identities are never entirely obscured when they share online.
  • You might get trolled: While many online communities do their best to weed out those who are unkind to others, the risk remains that trolls may attack the comments of your post, making your experience of sharing negative rather than empowering. If you do not think that you could handle criticism from others online regarding vulnerable topics, it may be best not to post sensitive content online.
  • You might go viral: While this may seem unlikely, it happens more often than you might think, especially to posts in the larger, more popular subreddits and Tumblr communities. Content aggregator websites such as Buzzfeed often scoop interesting stories from social media sites and share them in themed articles with an attribution in the form of the original creator’s username. This type of sharing goes widely beyond the original creator’s intent and can bring a large amount of unwanted attention to their profile. It is important to consider how you would react to your post going viral before you decide to post sensitive content online.


Think before you ink

When deciding whether or not to share your own sensitive content online, it might be helpful to consider the following questions first:

  • Are you being asked to share sensitive information for a class, either on social media or in a paper that could find its way to a website like Turnitin? It may be worth speaking to your professor to find a way to share (or not share) that is both comfortable and safe for you
  • Why are you sharing this content online? Does this content have the potential to help you or others in some way, or are you sharing just for the sake of sharing?
  • How might your content affect others, such as the subjects of the post if you are sharing about someone else? What might happen if the subject of your post or a monitor such as a government entity discovered your content and realized that you were the one who shared it?
  • Would you be able to handle your content going viral? Or, how would you react to trolls attacking your comments section?
  • What level of anonymity are you seeking when you share? Are you comfortable sharing this content on a more identifiable platform such as Facebook or Instagram? Or would it be better to use a more anonymous platform such as Tumblr or Reddit?
  • Do you want your sensitive content linked to your account? Would it be better to use a throwaway account for this post?
  • Does the content that you want to share contain any information or images that could lead to legal or political ramifications for you or others?
  • If you are sharing in a specific online community, do your content and your actions with that content (i.e. your sharing habits) fit into the etiquette established by that community?
  • Think about where you will be in the next 10 years: might the content that you post now impact you, your career, or your family?

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to post sensitive content online is up to you and your comfort levels. Just be sure that you make your choices thoughtfully and intentionally!


Benefits of Sharing Sensitive Content Online:

Drawbacks of Sharing Sensitive Content Online:


The Digital Tattoo Project encourages critical discussion on topics surrounding digital citizenship and online identity. There are no correct answers and every person will view these topics from a different perspective. Be sure to complete the previous sections before answering the questions.

  • Weighing the benefits and the drawbacks, would you ever share sensitive content online? Why or why not?
  • For those who have shared sensitive content online before, how was your experience?
  • What kind of questions should you ask yourself before deciding to write about a sensitive topic for a class assignment, knowing that your work may be submitted to an site like Turnitin?

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