Ongoing Series: Moral Panics / Techno-Panics

Several TLF posts have sought to address and/or debunk various “moral panics” or “techno-panics.” 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.

While protection of youth is typically a motivating factor, some techno-panics transcend the old “It’s For the Children” rationales for action. What all panics share in common, however, is a general desire by the public, media pundits, and policymakers to “do something” to rid ourselves of the apparent menace. Thus, an effort to control the particular content or technology in question is what really defines a true “panic.”

Many “panic” theories are driven by a psychological phenomenon known as “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 of “media bias” where there was none, the third-person-effect hypothesis has provided an explanation for other phenomenon and forms of regulation, especially media 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 ill effects of “indecent” material, or even just persuasive communications or viewpoints they do not agree with, but claim it will have a corrupting influence on others.

Here are some TLF essays on these topics. (Adam Thierer was the author of the post unless otherwise noted):

Posts on Moral Panic / Techno-Panics:

Posts on Third-Person Effect Hypothesis: