John Naughton, a professor at the Open University in the U.K. and a columnist for the U.K. Guardian, has a new essay out entitled “Only a Fool or Nicolas Sarkozy Would Go to War with Facebook.” I enjoyed it because it touches upon two interrelated concepts that I’ve spent years writing about: “moral panic” and “third-person effect hypothesis” (although Naughton doesn’t discuss the latter by name in his piece.) To recap, let’s define those terms:
“Moral Panic” / “Techno-Panic“: Christopher Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M’s Department of Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice, offers the following definition: “A moral panic occurs when a segment of society believes that the behavior or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole.” By extension, a “techno-panic” is simply a moral panic that centers around societal fears about a specific contemporary technology (or technological activity) instead of merely the content flowing over that technology or medium.
“Third-Person Effect Hypothesis“: First formulated by psychologist W. Phillips Davison in 1983, “this hypothesis predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves.” While originally formulated as an explanation for how people convinced themselves “media bias” existed where none was present, the third-person-effect hypothesis has provided an explanation for other phenomenon and forms of regulation, especially content censorship. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects about censorship efforts historically is that it is apparent that many censorship advocates desire regulation to protect others, not themselves, from what they perceive to be persuasive or harmful content. That is, many people imagine themselves immune from the supposedly ill effects of “objectionable” material, or even just persuasive communications or viewpoints they do not agree with, but they claim it will have a corrupting influence on others.
All my past essays about moral panics and third-person effect hypothesis can be found here. These theories are also frequently on display in the work of some of the “Internet pessimists” I have written about here, as well as in many bills and regulatory proposals floated by lawmakers. Which brings us back to the Naughton essay.
Naughton comments on French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent speech at the eG8 summit, which many regarded as an attack on the Internet and online freedoms. Naughton argues:
in a way, he was just acting as a mouthpiece for the political, judicial, commercial and security establishments which are becoming increasingly hysterical about the way the internet is upending their respective applecarts. In that sense, Sarky was echoing the fulminations of England’s lord chief justice that “technology is out of control”, by which he meant, as Peter Preston has pointed out, is beyond his control. Establishment panic about the net’s disruptiveness is matched by renewed outbreaks of an age-old neurosis – moral panic about the impact of new communications technology on young people. This was fuelled last week by a report that Facebook was going to allow children under the age of 13 to become members. US law currently insists that websites that collect information about users (as Facebook does) aren’t allowed to sign on anyone under the age of 13.
I think Naughton’s probably on to something here. I’m not quite sure Sarkozy’s speech fit the classic “moral panic” model, but I did sense a bit of third-person effect hypothesis at work in some of Sarkozy’s comments. Naughton continues on to discuss the rising fears about social networking sites in particular and notes “the fixed conviction of the adult world that young people are being seduced, hoodwinked, fixated, dumbed down (insert favourite downside here) by Facebook and Twitter.” To this concern Naughton rightly notes:
Much of the moral panic about social networking is a projection of adult fears. A neurosis, as Ken Tynan wisely observed, is a secret that you don’t know you’re keeping. Many teenagers do silly things online; what their parents forget is that they also did silly things in their youth.
Quite right. This is actually a very old story. From the waltz to rock and roll to rap music, from movies to comic books to video games, from radio and television to the Internet and social networking websites—every new media format or technology spawns a fresh debate about the potential negative effects it might have on kids. In each case, the adult generation forgets they, too, were once kids and somehow got through the trials and tribulations of the adolescent experience.
The late University of North Carolina journalism professor Margaret A. Blanchard once noted: “[P]arents and grandparents who lead the efforts to cleanse today’s society seem to forget that they survived alleged attacks on their morals by different media when they were children. Each generation’s adults either lose faith in the ability of their young people to do the same or they become convinced that the dangers facing the new generation are much more substantial than the ones they faced as children.” And Thomas Hine, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, argues that: “We seem to have moved, without skipping a beat, from blaming our parents for the ills of society to blaming our children. We want them to embody virtues we only rarely practice. We want them to eschew habits we’ve never managed to break.”
What is needed, as I argued in my old book on Parental Controls and Online Child Protection, is a measured and balanced approach to children’s exposure to media content and online interactions — whether the fear is objectionable content or privacy. All-or-nothing extremes are not going to work. In particular, fear-mongering and “techno-panics” are never the proper response. “Fear, in many cases, is leading to overreaction, which in turn could give rise to greater problems as young people take detours around the roadblocks we think we are erecting,” argue John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, authors of the brilliant recent book, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. What parents, guardians, and educators need to understand, they argue, “is that the traditional values and common sense that have served them well in the past will be relevant in this new world, too.”
That is good advice to parents and policymakers alike.