The perpetual outrage machine: moral panics in the digital age - a provocation

At our March Meetup we welcomed Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan to discuss moral panics. Sid is the acting European tech correspondent at the Financial Times, where he covers policy and politics online - ranging from content moderation and extremism to data transfers and healthtech. Prior to joining the tech team, he was a leader writer at the FT and has also worked in consulting.

In this provocation, Sid discussed how moral panics start, spread, and are aggravated in online spaces. Broadly, a moral panic is a wide-spread fear or outrage over an issue, often with key ‘outsiders’ identified as the cause of that issue. The foundations of a moral panic may have some truth to them, but the majority of claims made that fuel moral panics are false.

Some recent examples of moral panics are:

Telecommunication towers were destroyed during the coronavirus pandemic by people who falsely believed they were responsible for the spread of the virus
  • Pizzagate: during Donald Trump’s election campaign, claims were made that Hilary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria. These entirely false claims spread all over social media, resulting in the pizzeria owners receiving death threats

  • 5G as the cause of COVID-19: the belief that 5G is somehow dangerous; that it is used as part of the wider hoax of covid-19; and that you can even protect yourself against it with a bioshield.

  • The Momo Challenge: where parents were led to believe that a disturbing character called Momo was popping up in Youtube videos, and giving children ‘challenges’ to harm themselves.

Using Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Sid described how a moral panic is made up of five key elements. We can look at these elements in the context of the Momo Challenge, to better understand them:

Concern: the worry that there is a threat to morality and normative culture. In the case of Momo, the threat was harm coming to children.

Hostility: moral outrage towards those who are deemed responsible for this threat. So with Momo, that would be the invisible forces who invented the character, and put it into Youtube videos.

Disproportionality: there was no proof that a character called Momo was popping up in Youtube kids videos, but the response was still huge: police forces and schools issued warnings to parents and children across several continents.

Consensus: any moral panic needs wide-spread agreement that the threat is real, and needs to be removed. Even the BBC were reporting on Momo, as if it was fact.

Volatility: moral panics dissipate as quickly as they erupt. The Momo panic seemed to come out of nowhere, and for no obvious reason, (stemming from a sculpture made by a Japanese special effects company), and then was very quickly forgotten about.

What is moral entrepreneurship?

Another important part of the moral panic is the moral entrepreneur. These are people who will use their influence to start or spread moral panics. Who are these people? Sid explained that anyone can be a moral entrepreneur – especially nowadays, because social media has significantly lowered the bar to reaching wider audiences. Someone with a large online platform who speaks out against an issue or group could be labelled as a moral entrepreneur.

Sid cited Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Moral Construction in his description. According to this text, moral entrepreneurs can come from elite groups (such as celebrities or politicians), interest groups (covering professional bodies, government employees, and broad middle class), or grass roots organisations. You can also look at moral entrepreneurs as sitting on a spectrum between 'genuine concern' and 'cynical self-interest'.

Alex Jones: a moral outrage entrepreneur

So, with this in mind, it’s easy to describe someone like Alex Jones as a moral entrepreneur. Contrastingly, Greta Thunberg also technically fits this description. But there is a distinction between these two: Jones may be referred to as a ‘moral outrage entrepreneur’ whereas Thunberg is a moral entrepreneur in the broader sense.

The next section will go into more detail about how moral entrepreneurs use moral panics to become or remain influential.


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The impact of social media on moral panics

The scale and speed at which you can share information on social media has brought about more moral panic in recent years. Sid covered five key impacts that social media has had on moral panic.

Firstly, we have the democratisation of the media. Social media has siphoned power away from traditional media outlets, and has therefore lowered the bar for the following:

  • Becoming a moral entrepreneur: anyone with a large enough online following can become one