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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT