Stephanie Borg Psaila   16 Jun 2011   E-Diplomacy

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Many machine operators will tell you that accidents happen when the operator starts taking the machine for granted. The longer the time spent using the same machine, the more dangerously accustomed to it an operator is likely to become – unless safety precautions are continuously observed.

The same rules also apply to computers, e-mail, social media networks, and any other software or application involving a ‘Send’ or an ‘Update’ button. Hastiness, oversight, or plain distraction can lead us to rue the moment we hit that button.

US Rep. Anthony Weiner must have felt exactly the same when he posted his now infamous lewd photo, typing @ instead of D. Without the ‘D’ (to denote that the sender is private messaging the tweet recipient), his tweet went public. Naturally, he panicked the moment he hit ‘Send’:

 

‘Last Friday night, I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as a direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle. Once I realized I had posted it to Twitter, I panicked. I took it down and said that I had been hacked…’

What may be attributed to hastiness, oversight, or distraction, Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme blames on the weather. The Prime Minister was yesterday ‘caught’ posting a tweet which attracted media speculation. The tweet, posted during an official visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo for its 50th year of independence from Belgium, read: ‘Not at all. Want to learn to know you. You to?’ Online magazine publisher Zimbio reported that by the time the tweet was deleted, daily newspaper La Capital and news website 7sur7.be were already asking themselves whether the Prime Minister had made a new acquaintance. Amid wide speculation, the Prime Minister replaced the tweet with another one, concluding that ‘It must be the heat. :-)’

This slideshow describes other Twitter blunders (and the actual tweets) made by politicians. However, it doesn’t happen only on Twitter; it happens with e-mails, too.

Last April, Bryan Brandenburg, an aide to Michigan State Representative Jeff Farrington, accidently sent an e-mail to every member of the Republican legislative staff instead of a small group of fellow aides. The e-mail encouraged colleagues to ‘hit on’ a newly single House staffer.

Similarly, but several years back, a junior clerical officer at the British Treasury accidently sent a private e-mail – which he intended to send only to a group of friends – to the Treasury’s media contacts, which apparently included The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph.

Of course, no one is immune from e-mail and social media blunders. For example, banks e-mailing the wrong client, universities e-mailing letters of acceptance to students who had been turned down, and glitches in Facebook which attempted to send e-mails to the wrong recipients. However, the above examples of politicians’ and government officials’ gaffes echo deeper, and the public is generally less forgiving.

These blunders come at a high cost: it’s virtually impossible to recall an e-mail, or a social media update. The harm is unpreventable the moment we hit ‘send’. The same applies to e-mails we send when ‘replying to all’, instead of replying to only one recipient.

The only consolation is that close observations of the ‘safety precautions’ can very much limit these gaffes. Common sense often prescribes these precautions, but in case of doubt, the web offers plenty of resources on the dos and don’ts of effective e-mail and social media conduct and netiquette.

We ask: Is there a definitive cure for the prematurely-sent e-mail, tweet, or update, or are these mistakes only human and inevitable? Comments are welcome!

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