Skip to main content

Think before you tweet

By Dean Obeidallah
December 22, 2013 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: Unwise tweets have ruined careers, reputations
  • Obeidallah: PR executive Justine Sacco was fired for her tweet about AIDS and Africa
  • He offers 8 ways to help people avoid the pitfalls of tweeting before thinking
  • Obeidallah: If you're still in doubt about a tweet, use the "FireMe!" app

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks, including CNN. He is the co-director of the new comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy. This article was originally published on December 5 and updated December 22.

(CNN) -- Who could've ever predicted that 140 characters could screw up so many people's lives?

But that's exactly what has happened to politicians, executives, government staff and others because of their comments on Twitter. This social media platform has morphed from a fun place to an information hub to a career killer.

And astoundingly, even people who work in PR -- you know, the folks who are supposed to advise clients on how to avoid social media disasters -- can tweet out statements that cause a media uproar. We saw that this weekend when Justine Sacco -- who at that time was a PR executive -- tweeted shortly before her 12-hour flight to South Africa on Friday: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

Those 64 characters tweeted by Sacco resulted in her now being known as "ex-PR executive." Sacco was fired by IAC, the media company headed by Barry Diller, within hours of landing in South Africa. The lesson here is clear: Just because you say "Just kidding" or "LOL" after your statement doesn't mean you won't get canned for your tweet. Sacco apologized Sunday: "For being insensitive to this crisis -- which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly -- and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed."

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

Of course, not every Twitter mistake ends a career. Some just result in embarrassment or an avalanche of mocking tweets.

For example, recently the Republican National Committee tweeted: "Today we remember Rosa Parks' bold stand and her role in ending racism." The RNC's intent was to commemorate the anniversary of Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus in 1955.

But instead, the tweet set off a firestorm with people ridiculing the RNC for suggesting that racism had ended in America. Consequently, the RNC was compelled to tweet out a clarification.

Outrage over PR exec's AIDS tweet

The paradox of Twitter is that it's really easy to use and it's just as easy to screw up. So in an effort to help people avoid the pitfalls that have caught so many others, here are some tips for you to keep in mind before you press "send" on that next tweet.

1. Proofread your tweets

Sounds simple enough, right? But since we all tweet in a hurry, we often send out typos. One of the worst typos was made by White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who put out a tweet that accidentally included the N-word. (He was trying to tweet the word "bigger.") Of course, he deleted that tweet and apologized. But a quick proofread would've prevented this.

2. Racist tweets = unemployment

This should be a no-brainer, but then again so should proofreading tweets.

3. Nothing on Twitter stays anonymous forever

Okay, you're not an idiot. You know enough not to badmouth your employer or co-workers on your personal Twitter account. So you create a fake Twitter account. Genius, right?! Well, just ask Jofi Joseph, a former senior National Security Council staffer who did just that. Joseph created an anonymous Twitter account and leveled criticism at co-workers and even his superiors. He was discovered and fired. Honestly, how can a guy who works with the NSC not realize that the NSC could figure out who he was?!

4. You can't really delete tweets

Sure, there's a delete button on Twitter, but once it's out there, simply put: You're screwed. For example, earlier this year the spokesman for Rep. Raul Labrador tweeted out on the congressman's official Twitter account: "Me likey Broke Girls," in reference to the CBS show "2 Broke Girls." The spokesman quickly deleted the tweet, but a short time later the congressman deleted the spokesman from his staff.

5. You don't have to be famous to get fired for a tweet

Having a lower-level job and only a few Twitter followers doesn't translate into immunity from being canned for a tweet. That's the lesson a young guy who worked at a food truck in New York City discovered the hard way. In his case, a big group from a local company ordered food but didn't leave a tip. A few minutes later the employee took to his personal Twitter account to mock the people who had stiffed him and mentioned their company by name. How many Twitter followers did he have? About 300. But two days later he was fired for ridiculing customers.

6. Even jokes can get you fired

I'm a comedian, and I've been subjected to numerous attacks for my jokes on Twitter -- usually from people who say they are offended that I mock their conservative icons. That comes with the territory of being a comedian. But there's a line that comedians can cross which will actually get you fired. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried found out exactly where that line was drawn after he tweeted a series of jokes seemingly mocking the victims of the Japanese tsunami in 2011. Gottfried apologized, but that wasn't enough for insurance giant Aflac. He was fired from his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck.

7. Don't confuse sending a direct message with tweeting

This is an easy mistake to make -- just ask former Rep. Anthony Weiner. Direct messages go to one person and are private like an e-mail. Weiner's problem occurred when he intended to send a photo of himself in his underwear via direct message to one woman. Turns out he accidentally sent the photo to everyone on Twitter. The rest is history.

8. If still in doubt about a tweet, try the "FireMe!" app

This app will rate your tweet to give you a sense of whether you will be fired for sending it out. While not foolproof, it can be helpful.

Hopefully, these eight suggestions will help you better navigate Twitter without losing your job.

Of course, there will always be people who get fired for using Twitter inappropriately. But the upside is that without a job, they will have more time to think before they tweet. It's just too bad that they didn't do that earlier.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT