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Preparing to burn a witch in 1544. Witch-hunts are an example of mass behavior fueled by moral panic.

A moral panic is the intensity of feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.[1] According to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) and credited with coining the term, 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."[2] 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."

Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo.[3] The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.[4][citation needed]


Moral panics have several distinct features. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:

  • Concern - There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative impact 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.[1]


Pogroms, purges and witch-hunts


Jewish victims of a pogrom in Ekaterinoslav in 1905

Persecutions of individuals or groups have been cited as moral panics, such as anti-Semitic pogroms, Stalinist purges, the witch-hunts of Renaissance Europe, the McCarthyist public interrogations and blacklisting of Communists in the US during the 1950s.[5] Various actions in Western countries following the September 11 attacks affecting Arabs, Muslims, or those mistaken for them have been referred to as "moral panics."[6][7]

Satanic ritual abuse, child abuse

Satanic ritual abuse is regarded by the majority of scholars as a series of moral panics originating in the U.S and spreading to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s.[5][8][9][10] 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 unusual crimes of abuse such as high-profile cases of child abduction and murder.[8]


Backmasking (a recording technique in which a sound or message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward) has been a controversial topic in the United States since the 1980s, when allegations from Christian groups of its use for Satanic purposes were made against prominent rock musicians, leading to record-burning protests and even proposed anti-backmasking legislation by state and federal governments.[11]

Sex 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.[12][13][14][15]

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."[16]

Role playing games

At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons has received negative publicity for alleged promotion of such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s especially, some religious groups accused the game of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of Demons.[17] 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.

Contemporary video game industry

It has been suggested that the recent drive to regulate video games is another instance of moral panic over the content of popular culture.[18][19][20] The industry response has been to create a self-regulatory ratings system similar to that used by the film industry.[21]

Crime rates

Various researchers have shown that fears of increasing crime or an increase in certain types of crime are 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 continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai (浜井浩一) points out how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s led to the widespread view that the crime rate is rising and that crimes are increasingly severe. This became an election issue in 2003 with a moral panic over the "collapsing safe society."[22]


There has been a significant increase in attention to obesity by the media in the United States and other countries. Some researchers have examined whether this is a genuine health crisis and suggest that it has many of the elements of a moral panic.[23][24]

Political ideologies

In the United States during the later half of the 1940s and 1950s, the Cold War produced a massive reaction among the public opinion against Communism of the Soviet Union. Some Americans believed communists influenced the highest levels of government and produced a phenomenon known as McCarthyism, often accusations of who were Communists in the US government were exaggerated and unproven. In the motion picture industry, scores of actors and actresses were blacklisted due to holding left-wing opinions and/or thought to be sympathetic to the Communist Party (USA). The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated thousands of American citizens for possible ties with communism and so had the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in that time period.


In 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.[25] Others have criticized Cohen's work stating that not all the folk devils expressed in his work are vulnerable or unfairly maligned. Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality' and how it is accepted unproblematically in 'moral panics'.[26]

The British television show Brass Eye, written by and starring Chris Morris, attempted to satirise moral panic, most notably in the episodes 'Drugs' and the special 'Paedogeddon'. In these episodes, celebrities and politicians were duped into appearing in fictional campaigns against particular social ills, thus demonstrating the tendency for both such groups towards jumping onto the bandwagon of campaigns against social problems, principally to raise their own profiles.

See also




  1. 1.0 1.1 Jones, M, and E. Jones. (1999). Mass Media. London: Macmillan Press
  2. Cohen, S. (1973). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. St Albans: Paladin, p.9
  3. Kuzma, Cindy. "Rights and Liberties: Sex, Lies, and Moral Panics". AlterNet. September 28, 2005. Accessed September 5, 2008.
  4. Cohen, S., p.16
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ben-Yehuda N; Goode E (1994). Moral panics: the social construction of deviance. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 57–65. ISBN 0-631-18905-X.
  6. Bavelaar, R (2005-09-21). "'Moral Panic' and the Muslim". IslamOnline. Retrieved 2009-03-06.[dead link]
  7. Collins, J (2005-11-08). "Ethnic Minorities and Crime in Australia: Moral Panic or Meaningful Policy Responses" (pdf). Perth, Australia: Office of Multicultural Interest. Archived from the original on 2008-07-19. Retrieved 2009-03-06.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Jenkins, P (1998). Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 207–231. ISBN 0300109636.
  9. Victor JS (1993). Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Open Court Publishing Company. pp. 55–6. ISBN 081269192X.
  10. de Young, Mary (2004). The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic. Jefferson, North Carolina, United States: McFarland and Company. pp. 42. ISBN 0786418303.
  11. Billiter, Bill. "Satanic Messages Played Back for Assembly Panel" Los Angeles Times April 28, 1982: B3
  12. Doezema, Jo (2000). "Loose women or lost women". Gender Issues 18 (1): 23–50. doi:10.1007/s12147-999-0021-9. (HTML version)
  13. Weitzer, Ronald. (2007). "The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade", Politics & Society 35(3):447–475. Template:DOI.
  14. Milivojevic, Sanja (2008). "Women’s bodies, moral panic and the world game: sex trafficking, the 2006 Football World Cup and beyond". Proceedings of the 2nd Australian & New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference. pp. 222–242. Archived from the original on 2009-10-02.
  15. Davies, Nick (2009-10-20). "Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-11-29.
  16. "Drugs – facing facts: The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy" (pdf). Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. 2007. pp. 15. Retrieved 2008-01-04.
  17. Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
  18. Byrd, Patrick (2007). "It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody Gets Hurt: The Effectiveness of Proposed Video Game Regulation" (pdf). Retrieved 2007-03-19.
  19. Christopher J. Ferguson (2008). "The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Link or Moral Panic?" (pdf). Archived from the original on 2009-11-22. Retrieved 2009-11-13.
  20. Gagne, Kenneth A. (2001-04-27). "Moral Panics Over Youth Culture and Video Games". Retrieved 2010-06-10.
  21. Entertainment Software Rating Board
  22. Hamai, K (2004). "How 'the Myth of Collapsing Safe Society' Has Been Created in Japan : Beyond the Moral Panic and Victim Industry(Rising Fear of Crime and Re-building Safe Society in Japan: Moral Panic or Evidence-Based Crime Control)". Japanese Journal of Sociological Criminology (29): 4–93.
  23. Kwan, S (2009). "Framing the Fat Body: Contested Meanings between Government, Activists, and Industry" (pdf). Sociological Inquiry 79 (1): 25–50. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2008.00271.x.
  24. Campos P, Saguy A, Ernsberger P, Oliver E, Gaesser G (February 2006). "The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?". Int J Epidemiol 35 (1): 55–60. doi:10.1093/ije/dyi254. PMID 16339599.
  25. Cohen, S. (1980) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Oxford: Martin Robertson, pp. xxvi-xxxi
  26. Jewkes Y (2004). Media and crime. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-7619-4765-5.

Further reading

  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman; Goode, Erich (1994). Moral panics: the social construction of deviance. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-18905-X.
  • James M. Jasper, “Moral Panics.” In N. J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, eds., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Pergamon. 2001. Pages 10029-10033.

External links

cs:Morální panika es:Pánico moral fr:Panique morale he:פאניקה מוסרית ja:モラル・パニック no:Moralsk panikk sh:Moralna panika fi:Moraalipaniikki sv:Moralpanik zh:道德恐慌

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