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A moral panic is a reaction by a group of people based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. It has also been more broadly defined as an "episode, condition, person or group of persons" that has in recent times been "defined as a threat to societal values and interests."[1] They are byproducts of controversies that produce arguments and social tension, or aren't easily discussed as some of these moral panics are taboo to many people. Moral panics are often associated with sexual issues,[2] and are occasionally employed as strategies to achieve political goals.[3][4]

These panics are generally fueled by media coverage or outright propaganda around a social issue, although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur. Mass hysteria can be an element in these movements, but moral panic is different from mass hysteria in that a moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality and is usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Moral panics (as defined by Stanley Cohen) revolve around a perceived threat to a value or norm held by a society normally stimulated by glorification within the mass media or 'folk legend' within societies. Panics have a number of outcomes, the most poignant being the certification to the players within the panic that what they are doing appears to warrant observation by mass media and therefore may push them further into the activities that lead to the original feeling of moral panic.

The influences and behaviors of young people are common themes in many moral panics.

Origins and use of the term[]

The term was coined by Stanley Cohen in 1972 to describe media coverage of Mods and Rockers in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. A factor in moral panic is the deviancy amplification spiral, the phenomenon defined by media critics as an increasing cycle of reporting on a category of antisocial behavior or other undesirable events.

While the term moral panic is relatively recent, many social scientists point to the Middletown studies, first conducted in 1925, as containing the first in-depth study of this phenomenon. In these studies, researchers found that community and religious leaders in an American town condemned then-new technology such as the radio and automobile for promoting immoral behavior. For example, a pastor interviewed in this study referred to the automobile as a "house of prostitution on wheels," and condemned this brand new invention for giving citizens a way of driving out of town when they should be attending church.

In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the reaction to the importation into the U.K. of the heretofore American phenomenon of mugging. Employing Cohen's definition of moral panic, Hall et. al. theorized that the "rising crime rate equation" has an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes. Moral panics (e.g. over mugging) could thereby be ignited in order to create public support for the need to "police the crisis." The media play a central role in the "social production of news" in order to reap the rewards of lurid crime stories.[5]


Commonly cited examples of real or imagined phenomena which have inspired moral panic include:

  • Satanic ritual abuse panics which originated in the U.S., but spread to the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s.[6][7]
  • Jews, targeted by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and blood libel accusations
  • Arabs and Muslims, in Western Countries[8]
  • Terrorism
  • Bestiality, in Washington USA, in the wake of the 2005 Kenneth Pinyan affair, and in Missouri in the wake of the Jerry Springer Show episode "I Married a Horse."[9]
  • Communism - see McCarthyism in the 1950s.
  • Pedophilia, Child sexual abuse - fear of "molesters" makes for sensational news - an ongoing tabloid newspaper campaign in the UK resulted in the (incorrectly) reported[10] assault and persecution of a paediatrician by an angry mob (which had confused the two words) in August 2000,[11] and in 2005 a man in Manchester, England was killed by knife after being mistakenly accused of child molestation by an insane man in the neighborhood.[12]
  • Pornography
  • Social networking sites, such as MySpace - fear of predators stalking teens.[13]
  • Heavy metal
  • Dungeons & Dragons[14]
  • First-person shooters - after school shootings[14]

See also[]


  1. * Cohen, Stanley. Folk devils and moral panics. London: Mac Gibbon and Kee, 1972. ISBN 0-415-26712-9 p. 9
  2. * Herdt, Gilbert. Moral panics, old and new. American Sexuality Magazine. Accessed on 3-15-07.
  3. * Joffe, Carole. "Abortion as Moral Panic: How reproductive rights became a divisive political issue". American Sexuality Magazine. Accessed March 27, 2007.
  4. * Kuzma, Cindy. "Rights and Liberties: Sex, Lies, and Moral Panics". AlterNet. September 28, 2005. Accessed March 27, 2007.
  5. Hall, S. 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan Press. ISBN 0333220617 (paperback) ISBN 0333220609 (hardbound)
  6. Goode, E. and N. Ben-Yahuda. 1994. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Oxford: Blackwell. p 57-65. ISBN 063118905X (paperback) ISBN 0631189041 (hardcover)
  7. Jenkins, P. 1998. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p 230-231. ISBN 0300109636 (paperback) ISBN 0300073879 (hardcover)
  8. "'Moral Panic' and the Muslim" by Rahma Bavelaar, IslamOnline, September 21, 2005.
  9. Pinyan was the passive partner in an act of sexual penetration by a stallion videotaped by a friend. This was the only incident of its kind in the state's history, and it could be said the human, who died from internal injuries, was the victim of his own act. Police concluded there was no evidence of animal abuse and that the only crime was the relatively minor one of trespass. None the less, almost instantly, legislation was proposed in a form of moral panic, covering every aspect conceivable: the act, the videotaping of the act, the knowing granting of permission for the act, the observing of the act. SB-6417 2006.
  10. "Whispering game" by Brendan O'Neill, BBC News, February 16, 2006.
  11. "Plain stupid: British vigilantes mistake a pediatrician for a pedophile" by Jack Boulware,, September 26, 2000.
  12. "Vigilante violence: Death by gossip" by Ian Herbert, The Independent, March 23, 2005.
  13. "Teens Create their Own Space Online", Talk of the Nation, February 1, 2006.
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Moral Panics Over Youth Culture and Video Games" by Kenneth A. Gagne, bachelor's thesis, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, April 27, 2001.

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