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This paper is based on the topic of moral panic. It seeks to explore the role of the new media in contemporary moral panics. It is argued that the new media is a leading cause of moral panic due to its ability to reach many people within a short time compared to other types of media. The paper uses “the fear of terrorism attacks” to illustrate the role played by the new media in causing moral panic. The major argument is that the new media is responsible for blowing the issue of terrorism out of proportion to the extent of making governments to violate the civil liberties of Muslims in the United States (US).
What is Moral Panic?
Moral panic refers to something which makes people to have a strong and passionate feeling about an issue which they consider as a threat to the prevailing social order in a given society. Moral panic can be traced back to 1960s in the works of Cohen who studied the role of the media in the mod and rocker riots (Cohen, 2011).
There are various categories of moral panics such as religious, political, medical, media, crime, and sexual moral panics. Each of these categories has specific examples of moral panics.
Religious moral panics are usually linked to religious extremism through radicalization or cults which engage in questionable activities or practices. For instance, some religious cults are known to make sacrifices of human beings while others are associated with devil worshiping and these practices cause a lot of fear among people. Political moral panics have to do with political arrangements which threaten human rights. For example, a government may decide to abuse the rights of offenders through torture.
Medical moral panics have to do with questionable practices by medics especially practices which go against the ethics of the medical profession. A good example is the use of unsterilized equipments for blood transfusion which may make people have the fear of donating blood to needy patients. Media moral panics have to do with particular media which may be used by outlawed groups to threaten civilians while crime related moral panics have to do with the fear of organized criminal gangs which rob and kill victims. Sexual moral panics concern sexual behaviors which are considered as taboo in the society such as homosexuality.
In most cases, moral panics have some degree of truth but at other times, they are characterized by mere propaganda. Ideally, the media has the responsibility of bringing an issue to the limelight but the same media is also known to exaggerate issues and blow them out of proportion thus causing moral panic. The reason why the media is capable of causing moral panic is because it is a powerful agent of socialization.
Some sociologists have argued that the media, also known as “the moral entrepreneur” can actually build or destroy a kingdom. This argument is relatively true because if the media deliberately chooses to misreport about an issue, the issue becomes of concern to many people even if it is not based on facts. Some of the commonly cited readings on the topic of moral panic include the “folk devils and moral panic”, and the “deviance and moral panic”.
The Fear of Terrorism Attacks
According to Raphael Perl in an article titled “terrorism and national security”, terrorism is a politically motivated violence which is perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups (Perl, 2004). In the same article, a terrorist group is defined as a group which practices or has some sub-groups which practice terrorism (Perl, 2004). Examples of terrorism attacks in recent history include the September 11 2001 attacks in the US, the July 7 2005 attacks in the United Kingdom and the November 3rd 2004 attacks in Madrid (BBC News, 2006).
Terrorism has recently become a leading cause of moral panic especially to the world’s super powers like the US and its allies after the September 11 terrorism attacks in the US where thousands of American citizens lost their lives (Kevin, 2002). After this episode, war on terrorism became an issue of national and international concern and forced many countries to adjust their national security strategies. For instance, the US shifted its strategy from deterrence to pre-emptiness through coercion of opponents to abandon extremism (Collins, 2007).
According to Raphael Perl, the countries which support terrorism include Iran, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Libya and Sudan (Perl, 2004). These are the countries which were described by the former US President George W. Bush as “the axis of evil” in that they were not only seen as supporting terrorism but also perpetuating other criminal activities like manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction (Pearson Education, 2007). After the September 11 attacks, Afghanistan was included in the list of the countries which support terrorism because the Taliban regime was believed to support the Al-Qaeda network (Williams, 2008).
Role of the New Media in Contemporary Terrorism
The new media majorly constitutes digital communication which enables users to exchange information in an interactive manner and in real-time. Examples include the internet, websites and social media such as twitter and Facebook. The new media has revolutionized the way people communicate and share information.
For instance, people are able to exchange photographs, messages and audio-visual content. These have reduced the social distance between people. The new media is especially preferred by the young generation which is technologically savvy. Due to its ability to enable people to communicate instantly, the new media has been used by many people to share information and more so, to spread or propagate falsehoods or give distorted information about terrorism thus causing moral panic across the globe.
Violation of civil liberties in the US
Even though the September 11 attacks were real, the new media played a big role in spreading the news in almost all parts of the world thus causing unnecessary fear among people to the point of perceiving normal crime as terrorism. The moral panic made the US government to scale up its fight against terrorism which left many civilians dead in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The former US President George W. Bush in 2001 also signed the US Patriotic Act into law (Michael, 2002). The Act required Americans to make some sacrifices regarding their civil liberties like the right to privacy through internet communication. The aim was to help the FBI trace and identify any premeditated terrorism attacks and take the necessary measures to protect the citizens (Michael, 2002).
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The killing of innocent civilians under the guise of fighting terrorism amounts to violation of civil rights and liberties. Civil rights are rights which protect certain freedoms from infringement by private organizations and governments. Such freedoms include freedom of speech, worship, and association. The protection of civil rights entails the enjoyment of such rights and freedoms by citizens of a country without repression or discrimination by the government (Cooray, 1995). National security entails the government’s mandate to protect its citizens from any threat to peace, either from internal or external sources. Any government is therefore obliged to do whatever is necessary to protect its citizens from any form of threat or violation of their civil rights.
Civil liberties are entitlements of citizens of a country. They are rights and freedoms which citizens are accorded by constitutions. They include freedoms of expression, religion, and movement, the right to privacy and to own property among other rights and freedoms provided for in a constitution or in international law.
In the US, the twin issues of national security and civil liberties have been controversial in that the government is supposed to protect the citizens from terrorists and at the same time respect their civil liberties; the big question being the extent to which the citizens must go in sacrificing their civil liberties in order to be protected (Robert, 2004).
When the citizens are left to enjoy their civil liberties, they may abuse them and engage in terrorism. On the other hand, when the government interferes with civil liberties of the citizens in an effort to protect them, it may end up violating their rights. However, the bottom line is that the protection of civil liberties is a primary role of the government (Robert, 2004).
The argument that citizens should sacrifice some of their civil liberties in exchange of protection has both positive and negative impacts. The positive impact is that the government is able to operate without any legal or technical challenges when protecting the citizens. It is also able to do what it deems necessary to combat any terrorism activities or threats to peace.
The negative impact is that the encroachment of people’s rights and freedoms by the government is subject to abuse. For instance, Muslim citizens in America were subjected to unnecessary interrogation and screening by the government in its efforts to prevent terrorism which amounted to racial discrimination.
There was also the issue of the Guantanamo prison in which those suspected to be terrorists were locked up for a long time without trial, which went against the bill of rights of the American constitution and the Geneva convention on human rights. The interception of mails and emails by the FBI and the eavesdropping on people’s conversations and especially lawyers and their clients was not only unethical but also amounted to violation of civil liberties (Robert, 2004).
The violation of civil liberties also had a wide range of social, legal and psychological costs both at the societal, family and individuals levels. The society became polarized due to lack of social cohesion. The lack of social cohesion led to hatred between Muslims and the other citizens. Consequently, further divisions emerged instead of unity of purpose and as a result, families and individuals ended up being traumatized which made them not to enjoy their life.
It should be noted that the US invasion of Iraq was on the basis of existence of weapons of mass destruction. But when it turned out that there were no such weapons, the US and its allies termed the invasion as being aimed at freeing the Iraq citizens from the leadership of Saddam Hussein, who they termed as a dictator. The invasion caused the destruction of important infrastructure like roads, hospitals, and classrooms. There were also massive deaths of innocent civilians from the US bombing of civilian inhabited settlements (Furedi, 1994).
This injustice was intertwined with other forms of social injustices like prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination based on race. The injustice in question was not a new phenomenon in the US but it came in the limelight after the September 11 attacks in which the new media was intensely involved in reporting of the news across the globe.
Following the intensive involvement of the new media in the reporting of the September 11attacks, people of the Muslim background in the US were subjected to blanket condemnation as potential terrorists. They were also treated with suspicion everywhere and at all times which amounted to an injustice of the highest order.
The Media Characteristics of Earlier Moral Panic Episodes
The new media has the ability to spread information to many people within a short time. It is relatively stronger than other media when it comes to influencing people’s perceptions, feelings, and reactions about an issue. The issue of terrorism surfaced long before the emergence of the new media. However, not many people knew about it because they did not have a means to communicate instantly.
The reporting about terrorism w as usually done through the print media which could not reach many people within a short time. As a result, terrorism did not cause panic to many people but it remained dormant for a long time. However, the emergence of the new media made the issue of terrorism spread like bush fire causing a lot of worry and panic.
With earlier moral panic episodes, it took a long time before an issue could cause panic to the population. Earlier moral panic episodes were also characterized by open hostility, volatility, and rebellion as opposed to contemporary moral panic episodes. The explanation is that even though the new media is able to spread issues far and wide, the same media is used to demystify the issues and thus neutralize any panic. Earlier moral panic episodes raised a lot of hostility, volatility, and rebellion due to absence of a media which could differentiate the facts from the myths about the issues which caused moral panic.
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