A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order. Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension, and in which agreement is difficult because the matter at its centre is taboo. 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.
The term first appeared in the English language in 1830 in The Quarterly Christian Spectator.
- 1 Historic use of the term
- 2 Characteristics
- 3 Examples
- 3.1 2010s: Sexual assault on college campuses
- 3.2 2010s: Internet trolling
- 3.3 2000s: Human trafficking
- 3.4 1990s–present: Sex offender panic
- 3.5 1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuse
- 3.6 1980s–1990s: Dungeons and Dragons
- 3.7 1980s–present: AIDS
- 3.8 1980s–present: Video games
- 3.9 1970s–present: Crime increase
- 3.10 1970s–present: War on drugs
- 4 Criticism
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Historic use of the term
The Quarterly Christian Spectator, a publication from 1830, wrote:
- Do they not speak as men do on other subjects, when they express activity? And is it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or "moral panic?" 
It was used again in the following year, with the same meaning as the term used in modern social sciences:
- Magendie a French physician of note on his visit to Sunderland where the Cholera was by the last accounts still raging praises the English government for not surrounding the town with a cordon of troops which as "a physical preventive would have been ineffectual and would have produced a moral panic far more fatal than the disease now is".
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 American
Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic for American and 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 first 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." 
Moral panics have several distinct features (many of which are discredited in the sociological literature). According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:
- Concern – There must be belief that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.
- Hostility – Hostility towards 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 disorganised.
- 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 due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.
2010s: Sexual assault on college campuses
2010s: Internet trolling
Some critics have argued that the public and judicial responses to Internet trolling have resembled a moral panic. It has been claimed that the focus of criminal prosecutions on young people, is a direct response of the agendas of politicians, journalists and feminists, whereas in reality young people are not responsible.
2000s: Human trafficking
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 Mann Act.
1990s–present: Sex offender panic
Some argue that sex offenders have been selected as the new realization of moral panics concentrating on sex, stranger danger, and national paranoia. People convicted of any sex crime are "...transformed into a concept of evil, which is then personified as a group of faceless, terrifying, and predatory devils...", who, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, are perceived as constant threats in our neighborhoods, habitually waiting for an opportunity to strike. Consequently, sex offenders are often brought up by media on Halloween, despite the fact that there has never been any recorded case of abduction or abuse by a registered sex offender on Halloween. Academics, treatment professionals and law reformist groups such as RSOL and WAR have been vocal in their criticism that current sex offender laws are more based on moral panic and "public emotion than good science", and have expanded over time to cover non-violent and low-level offenders, and treating them essentially the same as predatory offenders, often leading to disproportional punishment of being added on public sex offender registry, sometimes for life; and being subject to strict ordinances restricting their movement and places of living. Critics often point out that, contrary to popular media depictions, abductions by predatory offenders are very rare and 95% of child abuse offenses are committed by a someone known to the child; studies by the U.S Department of Justice found sex offender recidivism to be 5.3% which compares as second lowest of all offender groups, only those convicted of homicide having lower rate of recidivism. Critics claim that, while originally aimed towards the worst of the worst, the laws have gone through series of amendments, often named after child victim of a highly publicized predatory sex offense, expanding the scopes of the laws to low level offenses. 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 increased the panic leading 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.
1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuse
A series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse originated in the US and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s. 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.
1980s–1990s: Dungeons and Dragons
At various times Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy 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 ones, accused the games of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of demons. Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.
The theme of a meeting of the British Sociological Association's South West and Wales Study Group on 21 September 1985 was 'AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic'. This 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, at a time when both groups were also beginning to voice an equally increasing concern with the growing media attention and attendant scare-mongering that AIDS was attracting.
1980s–present: Video games
It has been suggested that the recent drive to regulate video games is another instance of moral panic over the content of popular culture. The industry response has been to create a self-regulatory ratings system similar to that used by the film industry.
1970s–present: Crime increase
Research shows that fears of increasing crime is often the cause of moral panics (Cohen, 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a populations' "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 is rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.
1970s–present: War on drugs
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 90's, 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 raising it in women's minds for the rest of their lives. For example, showing excessive concerns extending even into the late 2000s, a 2009 Australian study found that of 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked, drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the cases.
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.
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. 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.
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 protestors 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 criminologist (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.
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