The rise of the moral panic


Photography and the rise of the moral panic

I take it as accepted that a photograph can only show one aspect of the truth of an event. A fractional slice of time cannot possibly convey the whole story, even though it may be more than enough to create a powerful vision (sic) of the events unfolding before the camera.

Here I would like to suggest that this slicing of events can be create a wholly false picture of events which can lead to a (sometimes purposeful) distortion or at the very least misreading of the scene before the camera.

Imagine the world envisioned by the science fiction author, Larry Niven, in his 1973 story ‘Flashcrowd’. A news report appears on your TV screen alerting you to a protest/riot/media event anywhere on the planet. Grabbing your camera, you can instantly be transported to the event to witness, record, and possibly take advantage of the situation.

The plot of the story centres on a TV journalist who, after being fired for his inadvertent role in inciting a post-robbery riot in Los Angeles, seeks to investigate the teleportation system for the flaws in its design allowing for such spontaneous riots to occur.

While this technology does not exist, the facebook generation are constantly subjected to an inverted,  second-hand version where someone’s version of an event is flashed around  social media without any form of censure, critique, or in some cases, reason.

While it is commonly accepted that untruths travel faster than truths, what is often overlooked is that truths are often inconvenient and do not sit well with the narrative of those happy to pass on the untruths.

This subject has been examined by the sociologist, Stanley Cohen, in his study, ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’. Cohen looked at conflict between Mods and Rockers in Clacton on Easter Sunday 1964. The two groups came into conflict on the beach with some beach huts being vandalised and some windows broken. On the Monday morning the story had been a headline in every national newspaper with such titles as “Day of Terror by Scooter Groups” (The Daily Telegraph) and “Wild Ones Invade Seaside – 97 Arrests” (Daily Mirror). 

Cohen’s criticism about the media’s coverage of the episode is that it was subject to exaggeration and distortion of the facts. Such phrases as ‘orgy’, ‘riot’, ‘siege’, and ‘screaming mob’ were incorporated into the text, and exaggeration of the numbers involved all resulted in the perception of the event as a much more violent affair than the facts support.

Exaggerated and inflated reporting of a relatively minor event by the media led to an ‘amplification’  of events and rhetoric. In this way the media serves to create ready-made opinions about the course of action to be taken.

The initial cause, and the initial social actors are soon forgotten as the moral panic about the breakdown of society consumes them and labels them as a common enemy to society; they become new folk devils to be vilified by all ‘reasonable’ people in the wider society.

Change ‘media’ to ‘social media’ and this process of deviancy amplification goes into fast forward. In the Niven story, flashcrowds  could arise spontaneously from any  news report. When everyone can literally go anywhere without effort, the desire to witness, or become involved in events becomes overwhelming. In the social media world photographs and accounts of events are shared without any reflection or, in many cases, simple checking of the veracity of the account.

Often this ‘sharing’ is done innocently enough, but not always – consider the number of viruses that permeate the internet.

A critical viewer of social media should ask themselves a few questions before sharing reports and photographs.

Firstly, it this genuine? A recent, widespread, and completely inaccurate report of the death of the musician Lou Reed  was followed a week later by his actual death. The first account could have been checked fairly easily, and was soon denounced as a hoax. However, when Reed really died a week or so later, the initial reaction was to denounce this news as yet a further hoax. In itself, this falls into the category of annoying rather than dangerous (although presumably distressing to many), but it is very common to receive  reports  and ‘advice’ which might lead someone to change the security setting of their computers. One should always question deeply the motives of anyone starting such a hoax, even those spreading it might be doing so for purely altruistic reasons.

Secondly, is this a ‘chain letter’? The suggestion that something bad will follow inaction on your part to ‘share’ someone’s delusions is moving the goalposts towards a degree of callousness that beggars belief. Preying on the insecurity or naivety of sometimes vulnerable individuals  should be robustly rebuffed. Someone who sends something of this nature is clearly not a ‘friend’. Deleted, blocked and reported!

Thirdly, is there some deeper motive to this? Many people will ‘sell’ their political or religious ideology through social media in the form of calls to action for particular causes. If you are aware of, and in agreement with the cause, then this might be fair enough, particularly if shared by a known contact with similar views. If it’s completely out of the blue, it might be a data gathereing exercise by someone, or containing something (even) more sinister.

It wouldn’t be possible to spread rumours and untruths without the complicit agreement of the social media community.  Logic suggests that about half the people using the internet are of average or below average intelligence, so there will be many people simply not bright enough to do the research to check information before they pass it on.

Add to that those who have an ideological, religious or other commitment to the message being spread, accurate or not, and  the growth of new folk devils seems inevitable.

It used to be said that there were lies, damned lies and statistics. That was before the existence of social media. Now perhaps, it’s Facebook, lies and statistics. Or is that just too cynical?

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