A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. A Dictionary of Sociology defines a moral panic as "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media".
The media are key players in the dissemination of moral indignation, even when they do not appear to be consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety, or panic. Stanley Cohen states that moral panic happens when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." Examples of moral panic include the belief in widespread abduction of children by predatory paedophiles, belief in ritual abuse of women and children by satanic cults, the War on Drugs, and other public health issues.
Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964. According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), a moral panic occurs when "...[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests". Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as 'moral entrepreneurs', while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as 'folk devils'.
British vs. AmericanEdit
Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic as described by American versus British sociologists. In addition to pointing out other sociologists who note the distinction, Kenneth Thompson has characterized the difference as American sociologists tending to emphasize psychological factors while the British portray "moral panics" as crises of capitalism.
British criminologist Jock Young used the term in his participant observation study of drug taking in Porthmadog between 1967 and 1969. In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the public reaction to the phenomenon of mugging and the perception that it had recently been imported from American culture into the UK. Employing Cohen's definition of 'moral panic', Hall et al. theorized that the "...rising crime rate equation..." performs an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes; moral panics could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "...police the crisis".
Cohen's stages of moral panicEdit
- Someone, something or a group are defined as a threat to social norms or community interests
- The threat is then depicted in a simple and recognizable symbol/form by the media
- The portrayal of this symbol rouses public concern
- There is a response from authorities and policy makers
- The moral panic over the issue results in social changes within the community
In 1971 Stanley Cohen investigated a series of "moral panics". Cohen used the term "moral panic" to characterize the reactions of the media, the public, and agents of social control to youth disturbances. This work, involving the Mods and Rockers, demonstrated how agents of social control amplified deviance. According to Cohen, these groups were labeled as being outside the central core values of consensual society and as posing a threat to both the values of society and society itself, hence the term "folk devils".
In a more recent edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen outlines some of the criticisms that have arisen in response to moral panic theory. One of these is of the term "panic" itself, as it has connotations of irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintains that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor.
According to Stanley Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the concept of "moral panic" was linked to certain assumptions about the mass media. Stanley Cohen showed that the mass media are the primary source of the public's knowledge about deviance and social problems. He further argued that moral panic gives rise to the folk devil by labeling actions and people.
According to Cohen, the media appear in any or all three roles in moral panic dramas:
- Setting the agenda – selecting deviant or socially problematic events deemed as newsworthy, then using finer filters to select which events are candidates for moral panic.
- Transmitting the images – transmitting the claims by using the rhetoric of moral panics.
- Breaking the silence and making the claim.
Moral panics have several distinct features. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:
- Concern – There must be the belief that the behaviour of the group or activity deemed deviant is likely to have a negative effect on society.
- Hostility – Hostility toward the group in question increases, and they become "folk devils". A clear division forms between "them" and "us".
- Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the "moral entrepreneurs" are vocal and the "folk devils" appear weak and disorganized.
- Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
- Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared because public interest wanes or news reports change to another narrative.
20th–21st century: public healthEdit
The fear of disease (or fear of threats to public health) and spread of panic dates back many centuries and continues into the 21st century with diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, H1N1, Zika, and SARS. Cohen's idea of the "folk devil" and epidemics can be compared because of their role in spreading mass panic and fear. The intense concentration on hygiene emerged, before the 20th century, with a medical belief referred to as miasma theory, which states that disease was the direct result of the polluting emanations of filth: sewer gas, garbage fumes, and stenches that polluted air and water, which results in an epidemic. The Great Stink of 1858 was blamed on miasma, along with reoccurring cholera epidemics during the Victorian era. Although the water was safe to drink in most parts of London, such a panic had arisen that very few people would dare drink the water.
In the United States, a 1950 article titled "The Toy That Kills" in the Women's Home Companion, about automatic knives, or "switchblades", sparked a storm of controversy, further fed by highly popular films of the late 1950s including Rebel Without a Cause, Crime in the Streets, 12 Angry Men, The Delinquents, High School Confidential, and the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. Fixation on the switchblade as the symbol of youth violence, sex, and delinquency resulted in demands from the public and Congress to control the sale and possession of such knives. State laws restricting or criminalizing switchblade possession and use were adopted by an increasing number of state legislatures, and many of the restrictive laws around them worldwide date back to this period.
1970s–present: increase in crimeEdit
Research shows that fear of increasing crime is often the cause of moral panics. Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a population's "herd mentality", continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai explains how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s caused people to believe that the crime rate was rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.
1970s–present: video games and violenceEdit
There have been calls to regulate violence in video games for nearly as long as the video game industry has existed, with Death Race a notable early example. In the 1990s, however, improvements in video game technology allowed for more lifelike depictions of violence in games like Mortal Kombat and Doom. The industry attracted controversy over violent content and concerns about effects they might have on players, generating frequent media stories drawing connections between video games and violent behavior as well as a number of academic studies reporting conflicting findings about the strength of correlations. According to Christopher Ferguson, sensationalist media reports and the scientific community unintentionally worked together in "promoting an unreasonable fear of violent video games". Concerns from parts of the public about violent games led to cautionary, often exaggerated news stories, warnings from politicians and other public figures, and calls for research to prove the connection, which in turn led to studies "speaking beyond the available data and allowing the promulgation of extreme claims without the usual scientific caution and skepticism."
Since the 1990s, there have been attempts to regulate violent video games in the United States through congressional bills as well as within the industry. Public concern and media coverage of violent video games reached a high point following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, after which videos were found of the perpetrators talking about violent games like Doom and making comparisons between the acts they intended to carry out and aspects of games.
Ferguson and others have explained the video game moral panic as part of a cycle that all new media go through. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legally restricting sales of video games to minors would be unconstitutional and called the research presented in favor of regulation "unpersuasive".
1970s–present: war on drugsEdit
Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example, a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."
Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the war on drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 1990s, involving media's gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs. News media have been criticized for advocating "grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998," for overstating the threat and for excessively dwelling on the topic. For example, a 2009 Australian study found that drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked.
1980s–1990s: Dungeons & DragonsEdit
At various times, Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games have been accused of promoting such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s and later, some groups, especially fundamentalist Christian groups, accused the games of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of demons. While many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, they touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.
1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuseEdit
Also known as the "satanic panic", this was a series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse that originated in the United States and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and led to a string of wrongful convictions.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) may lead to or exacerbate other health conditions such as pneumonia, fungal infections, tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, and cytomegalovirus. A meeting of the British Sociological Association's South West and Wales Study entitled "AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic" was prompted by the growing interest of medical sociologists in AIDS, as well as that of UK health care professionals working in the field of health education. It took place at a time when both groups were beginning to voice an increased concern with the growing media attention and fear-mongering that AIDS was attracting. In the 1980s, a moral panic was created within the media over HIV/AIDS. In Britain the notable iceberg advert by the government clearly hinted that the public was uninformed about HIV/AIDS due to a lack of publicly assessable and accurate information.
The media outlets nicknamed HIV/AIDS the "gay plague", causing further stigmatization and misunderstandings about the disease. However, scientists gained a far better understanding of HIV/AIDS as it grew in the 1980s and moved into the 1990s and beyond. The illness was still negatively viewed by many as either caused by, or passed on through, the gay community. Once it became clear that this wasn't the case, the moral panic created by the media changed to blaming the overall negligence of ethical standards of the younger generation (both male and female), resulting in another moral panic. It is prevalent in the media[clarification needed] and the way HIV/AIDS is depicted taken from this extract, "British TV and press coverage is locked into an agenda which blocks out any approach to the subject which does not conform in advance to the values and language of a profoundly homophobic culture-a culture that is which does not regard gay men as fully or properly human. No distinction obtains for the agenda between 'quality' and 'tabloid' newspapers, or between 'popular' and 'serious' television."
In the 1990s, blame shifted to "uncivilized Africans" as the new "folk devils", with a popular theory alleging that HIV originated from humans having sex with simians. This theory was debunked by numerous experts.
1990s–present: sex offendersEdit
The media narrative of a sex offender highlighting egregious offenses as typical behavior of any sex offender, and media distorting the facts of some cases, has led legislators to attack judicial discretion, making sex offender registration mandatory based on certain listed offenses rather than individual risk or the actual severity of the crime, thus practically catching less serious offenders under the domain of harsh sex offender laws.
In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the UK and the US related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to such unusual crimes as high-profile cases of child abduction.
2000–present: human traffickingEdit
Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the 'white slavery' panic of a century earlier as prompted passage of the 1910 Mann Act.
2016–present: suicide communitiesEdit
The so-called "Blue Whale" hypothetical communities encouraging minors to commit suicide in alternative reality game form. As with many other moral panics, this one may have been started with an article in a newspaper. Some people consider it as a hoax with the objective to increase approval to Internet censorship in societies. Some governments have taken legislative actions strengthening internet censorship and introducing new felonies in the wake of the panic.
Paul Joosse (2017) has argued that while classic moral panic theory styled itself as being part of the 'sceptical revolution' that sought to critique structural functionalism, it is actually very similar to Durkheim's depiction of how the collective conscience is strengthened through its reactions to deviance (in Cohen's case, for example, 'right-thinkers' use folk devils to strengthen societal orthodoxies). In his analysis of Donald Trump's 2016 electoral victory, Joosse reimagines moral panic in Weberian terms, showing how charismatic moral entrepreneurs can at once deride folk devils in the traditional sense while avoiding the conservative moral recapitulation that classic moral panic theory predicts.
Another criticism is that of disproportionality. The problem with this argument is that there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action.:xxvi–xxxi Jarrett Thibodeaux (2014) further argues that the criteria of disproportionality erroneously assumes that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm. The idea that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm, but is a moral panic when it does not, is a 'constructionism of the gaps' line of explanation.
Writing in 1995 about the moral panic that arose in the UK after a series of murders by juveniles, chiefly that of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys but also including that of 70-year-old Edna Phillips by two 17-year-old girls, the sociologist Colin Hay pointed out that the folk devil was ambiguous in such cases; the child perpetrators would normally be thought of as innocent.
In "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton argue "that it is now time that every stage in the process of constructing a moral panic, as well as the social relations which support it, should be revised." Their argument is that mass media has changed since the concept of moral panic emerged so "that 'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were", and that 'folk devils' are not only castigated by mass media but supported and defended by it as well. They also suggest that the "points of social control" that moral panics used to rest on "have undergone some degree of shift, if not transformation."
The British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality', how it is accepted unproblematically in the concept of 'moral panic' and how most research into moral panics fails to approach the term critically but instead accepts it at face value. Jewkes goes on to argue that the thesis and the way it has been used fails to distinguish between crimes that quite rightly offend human morality, and thus elicit a justifiable reaction, and those that demonise minorities. The public are not sufficiently gullible to keep accepting the latter and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media and the government.
Another British criminologist, Steve Hall, goes a step further to suggest that the term 'moral panic' is a fundamental category error. Hall argues that although some crimes are sensationalized by the media, in the general structure of the crime/control narrative the ability of the existing state and criminal justice system to protect the public is also overstated. Public concern is whipped up only for the purpose of being soothed, which produces not panic but the opposite, comfort and complacency.
Echoing another point Hall makes, the sociologists Thompson and Williams argue that the concept of 'moral panic' is not a rational response to the phenomenon of social reaction, but itself a product of the irrational middle-class fear of the imagined working-class 'mob'. Using as an example a peaceful and lawful protest staged by local mothers against the re-housing of sex-offenders on their estate, Thompson and Williams show how the sensationalist demonization of the protesters by moral panic theorists and the liberal press was just as irrational as the demonization of the sex offenders by the protesters and the tabloid press.
Many sociologists and criminologists (Ungar, Hier, Rohloff) have revised Cohen's original framework. The revisions are compatible with the way in which Cohen theorizes panics in the third Introduction to Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
The term was used in 1830, in a way that completely differs from its modern social science application, by a religious magazine regarding a sermon.:250 The phrase was used again in 1831, with an intent that is possibly closer to its modern use.
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- Moral Panic Research Network, College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, Brunel University London