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September 18, 2013updated 11 Jan 2016 2:16pm

Tweeticide: How misusing Twitter can land you in a legal minefield

By Spear's

‘We’ve confidentially submitted an S-1 to the SEC for a planned IPO. This Tweet does not constitute an offer of any securities for sale.’

Thus read the tweet last week announcing the hotly-awaited news that Twitter is planning to float on the New York Stock Exchange. Readers might notice something else – the fact that Twitter had to find a way to include (or at least reference) all the usual legal disclaimers within 140 characters (although, despite this, it came in at an economical 135 characters).

And this, of course, is one of the main drawbacks of electronic communication – so much cannot be said in 140 characters, or is left unsaid in an email, that there is often room for later misinterpretation. Then there’s the spontaneity of it all – whilst you can safely bet that Twitter’s advisers spent many hours crafting those precious 135 characters, tweets and other instant messages are designed to be (and are, in their hundreds of millions) sent as spur-of-the-moment, carefree comments.

All of which spells potential minefield when left in the hands of the biggest users of social media, teenagers and twentysomethings. (And possibly also their silver-surfin’ grannies, who may be even more naïve about the damage that can be done with a misplaced tweet.)

Privacy in the Twitter era

So, what do you do if you are a wealthy family that guards its privacy and its reputation carefully? One moment you are relaxing at your super-private holiday retreat, and the next your teenager’s friend is happily instagramming pictures of your hideaway, or posting on facebook photos tagged to your location.

It can be a real security risk, too – think of poor Rebecca Adlington, the Olympic swimmer who was burgled recently after tweeting that she was out for the night. And many families will have younger members – from monosyllabic Thrones addict to socialite newly-grad – who merrily tweet details of the most mundane events to their friends, heedless of the impression it may leave on potential employers, let alone what family (or family business) secrets they might be broadcasting to the media, investors, or competitors, through to would-be burglars and others.

After all, email is easily sent but not generally public, whereas all the newer forms of communication are pretty much designed to be used without stopping to think, what does that instagram/message/tweet say about you… and are about as private as standing on your doorstep with a loudhailer.

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First, accept that you are unlikely to wean or wrench your child away from social media. Then think about the following options for helping the family to use it in a smarter way:

1. Less is more. Here’s news: even Twitter knows that sometimes it’s best not to say too much. Immediately after tweeting its own flotation story, Twitter (doubtless mindful of SEC rules about not communicating with the media/investors outside the formal IPO framework) posted ‘Now, back to work”. 

This perhaps works best for the very self-disciplined. However, most people should be willing to live with a few guidelines about the kinds of family information you think should be off-limits.

2. Tweeticide. No, for those of a certain generation, this does not mean that Sylvester the Cat has finally achieved his bloodthirsty intentions towards Tweety Pie the canary.

There are several different apps that makers claim will delete your entire Twitter archive, leaving your profile and history clean. For the tweetily incontinent, it could be sensible to use it every few months or weeks. Daily use would suggest a bigger problem.

3. This message will self-destruct in… Thanks, Mission: Impossible! There is now at least one new piece of software that enables you to send messages which delete themselves permanently (and can’t be copied or have screen-shots taken) a short time after being read.

Since a great deal of what’s sent via Twitter is intended by both senders and readers to be ephemeral, rather than for posterity, this might be a useful tool for some.

4. Don’t nag, untag. Your children can hopefully drop a few hints with friends coming to stay – even if it’s just to ask them to untag the location and/or the family, for example.

And of course nannies and other domestic employees should never be allowed to post photos or information about the family, or the family homes, on any social media platform, but untagging photos can be a useful fix if anything is already out there.

And of course, on re-reading this, you might also conclude that the whole topic is very much what Twitter users ironically call a #firstworldproblem… Happy tweeting.

Arabella Murphy is a partner at City private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP

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