Social media can be a powerful tool for politicians. Or it can be "just another place to put your foot in your mouth," as two Arizona lawmakers indirectly learned recently.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., apologized last week for his teenage son's use of offensive slurs on Twitter, the same day U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, was put on the defensive for comments about rape and abortion that exploded on the Internet.
"Things that we used to say to three or four people can now be heard around the world," said Gary Kebbel, director of the Center for Mobile Media at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
And it echoes for a long time, said Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of the Washington Post, now on the faculty at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
But just as there's no turning back an errant tweet, there's no turning back social media, Downie said. It's "just the reality of the new digital world."
Flake learned that when the website BuzzFeed found Twitter postings by his 15-year-old son, Tanner, who used racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs. Tanner's account has since been locked, but not before BuzzFeed got screen shots of the offending posts.
Flake issued an apology, telling the website he was "very disappointed in my teenage son's words, and I sincerely apologize for the insensitivity."
Franks was on the receiving end of a social media blitz for comments he made in a committee hearing on his bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Franks opposed a proposal to add an exception for victims of rape and incest, saying that "the estimates of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low."
He later said he meant that late-term abortions resulting from rape were low, but the clarification came too late.
"If Franks said something like this 10 years ago, very few people would have known about it," said Tim McGuire, another ASU journalism professor.
McGuire said it is hard for the mainstream media to ignore a story that goes viral.
"In both of these (Flake and Franks) cases, the mainstream media is no longer making the major calls about what's news and what's not," McGuire said. The old media are "not driving the bus; the public is."
Kebbel is calling for better media literacy training "starting in elementary schools."
Dan Gillmor, the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Cronkite, thinks "more energy should be put into journalism about larger issues."
The Flake incident "obviously is a story but shouldn't be a big story," said Gillmor, who is often more offended by politicians' actions than by their kids' words.
"There's probably no teenager in the world who hasn't said stupid things," he said.