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
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT