WASHINGTON – 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 this week.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., apologized Wednesday for his teenage son’s use of offensive slurs on Twitter, the same day Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, was put on the defensive for comments about rape and abortion that exploded on the Internet.
Experts say the incidents are reminders that people, particularly people in public life, need to be careful about social media.
“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.
“Social media creates a new permanent record for everyone who uses it. Everybody can see it and it doesn’t go away,” said Downie, now on 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 this week 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 screenshots 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.” But the issue was still alive Friday, with people tweeting links to a Salon article on it.
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. A Washington Post online article citing the comment was soon picked up by other news outlets and repeated in partisan tweets.
“If Franks said something like this 10 years ago, very few people would have known about it,” said Tim McGuire, another ASU journalism professor. “Today, it just goes viral.”
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 is “not driving the bus, the public is.”
Kebbel said the speed and easy availability of social media could contribute to “a golden age of communication” or could cheapen the discourse.
“I don’t think people realize the power and responsibility that social media allows,” said Kebbel, who called for better media literacy training “starting in elementary schools.”
McGuire thinks social media “is a good thing,” because it increases participation by the public and accountability for officials. Kebbel thinks it could also make journalists more responsive.
“We are working in a world where our audience can talk with us and talk back to us,” said Kebbel. Part of an editor’s job, he said, is to know “what people are talking about and what the trend is.”
Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the Poynter Institute, sees good and bad in the trend.
“Sometimes it enhances the way we do journalism, sometimes it makes things more confusing,” she said.
Dan Gillmor, the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Cronkite, agrees that social media is an effective tool. But he 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 their kids’ words.
“There’s probably no teenager in the world who hasn’t said stupid things,” he said.
Jody Brannon, editor of the National Journal’s Next America project, said mistakes by public officials are nothing new. They were cited in newspapers, on radio and on TV before the Internet became “just another place to put your foot in your mouth.”
But the new medium packs more punch, she said.
The pressure to tweet a message in 140 characters “is incredible, and so is the damage you can do in them,” Brannon said. “People should be more careful and responsible.”