Doc Bonn explains Moral Panic and Why it is Dangerous

Dr. Scott Bonn,Doc Bonn,Mass Deception

Moral panic has been defined as a condition or situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular group who are claimed to be responsible for the condition.  The moral panic concept is popular among scholars studying social problems, crime, media and collective behavior.  Introduced by Dr. Jock Young in 1971, the moral panic concept was developed and popularized by South African criminologist Dr. Stanley Cohen when he described the public reaction to disturbances by youths called “mods and rockers” at seaside resorts in Brighton, England, during the 1960s.  Cohen’s work illustrated how those reactions influenced the enforcement and formation of social policy, law, and societal perceptions of threat posed by the youth groups.  Since Cohen’s ground breaking analysis, the moral panic concept has been applied to a wide range of social problems by researchers including but not limited to youth gangs, school violence, child abuse, Satanism, wilding, flag burning, the war on drugs, illegal immigration, and the war on terror.

It has been argued that moral panics arise when distorted mass media campaigns are used to create fear, reinforce stereotypes and exacerbate pre-existing divisions in the world, often based on race, ethnicity and class. Moral panics have three distinguishing characteristics.  First, there is a focused attention on the behavior (either real or imagined) of certain groups, who are in turn transformed into “folk devils” by the mass media and stripped of all positive characteristics and imparted with exclusively negative ones.  Second, there is a gap between the concern over a condition and the objective threat it poses.  Typically, the objective threat is far less than popularly perceived and as presented by authorities.  Third, there is a great deal of fluctuation over time in the level of concern over a condition.  The typical pattern begins with the discovery of the threat, followed by a rapid rise and then peak in public concern, and subsequently (and often abruptly) concern subsides.  Perhaps most importantly, public hysteria over a perceived problem often results in the passing of legislation that is highly punitive, unnecessary, and serves to justify the agendas of those in positions of power and authority.

As originally explained by Stanley Cohen, at least five sets of social actors are involved in a moral panic.  These include: 1) folk devils, 2) rule or law enforcers, 3) the media, 4) politicians, and 5) the public.  First, in the lexicon of moral panic scholars, folk devils are those individuals who are socially defined (alleged) to be responsible for creating a threat to society.  Unlike some deviants or criminals, the folk devils are unambiguously unfavorable symbols.  They are the embodiment of evil and the antagonists in a moral panic drama.  Second, law enforcers such as the police, prosecutors or the military are vital to a moral panic as they are charged with upholding and enforcing the codes of conduct and official laws of the state.  These agents of the state are expected to detect, apprehend and punish the folk devils.  In addition, law enforcers present themselves as the protectors of society, without whom, chaos might well ensue.    Law enforcers must work to establish their legitimacy and justify their existence in society.  Third, the media are perhaps the most influential actor in the creation of a moral panic.  Typically, news media coverage of certain events involving the folk devils is distorted or exaggerated.  Such exaggerations make the folk devils appear to be much more threatening to society than they really are.  As a result, public concern and anxiety is heightened through journalistic hyperbole.  Fourth, politicians are also vital actors in a moral panic drama.  As elected officials, who must operate in the court of public opinion, politicians must present themselves as the protectors of the moral high ground.  They often fuel a moral panic by aligning themselves with the news media and law enforcers in a moral crusade against the evils introduced by the folk devils.  The fifth set of actors, the public, is perhaps the most important in a moral panic.  Public agitation or concern over the folk devils is the central element of a moral panic.  In fact, the success of politicians, law enforcers and the media in precipitating and sustaining a moral panic is ultimately contingent upon how successfully these sets of actors fuel public concern and outrage toward the folk devils.               

Significantly, there are actually two models of moral panic: 1) elite engineered, and 2) grass-roots. First, the elite engineered model of moral panic argues that an elite group deliberately and consciously undertakes a campaign to generate and sustain concern, fear, and panic on the part of the public over an issue that they recognize not to be terribly harmful to the society as a whole.  Often times, such a campaign is intended to divert public attention away from other objective or real problems in society, whose solution might jeopardize or undermine the interests of the elite group.  It has been argued, for example, that the U.S. war on drugs in the 1980s which had widespread public support resulted from a moral panic engineered by the administration of President Reagan.  However, this does not mean that the drug issue did not exist objectively or that illegal drugs did not represent a serious problem in certain isolated neighborhoods in the U.S.  Rather, it has been argued that the punitive position adopted by President Reagan toward illegal drug users exaggerated the threat of drugs to the general population, and that the news media reinforced the punitive and exaggerated rhetoric of the president.

Moral Panic,Dr. Scott Bonn,Doc Bonn,Mass Deception

The second approach—that is, the grass-roots model of moral panic—states that panics originate with the general public; the concern about a particular threat is a widespread, genuinely felt—if mistaken—concern.  Unlike the elite-engineered model of moral panic (i.e., a top-down approach in which elites orchestrate the panic from above), the grass-roots model stipulates that the expression of concern in other spheres, including the media and polity, are really expressions of more widespread concern from the masses.  The grass-roots model of moral panic argues that political elites and the news media cannot fabricate public concern where none existed initially.  Thus, the grass-roots model of moral panic is a “bottom-up” approach.  The Salem witchcraft trials of the 1600s in Massachusetts have been cited as an example of a grass-roots moral panic.

In summary, moral panics, whether elite engineered or grass-roots, pose a considerable threat to society, although the folk devils targeted in such panics are not the real sources of the problem.  Generally, the objective threat posed by the folk devils is either exaggerated or even nonexistent.  The real danger lies in the irrational mass fear caused by the moral panic, and in the punitive formal action taken against the alleged folk devils who pose no serious threat to society.

My question is: How does society’s susceptibility to the seduction and manipulation of moral panics make you feel?  I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic.  Please submit your comments below or email me directly at  Follow me @DocBonn on Twitter.

  Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers.

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Posted on April 11, 2012, in Mass Deception and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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