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The perpetual outrage machine: moral panics in the digital age - a provocation

At our March Meetup we welcomed Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan to discuss moral panics. Sid is the acting European tech correspondent at the Financial Times, where he covers policy and politics online - ranging from content moderation and extremism to data transfers and healthtech. Prior to joining the tech team, he was a leader writer at the FT and has also worked in consulting.

In this provocation, Sid discussed how moral panics start, spread, and are aggravated in online spaces. Broadly, a moral panic is a wide-spread fear or outrage over an issue, often with key ‘outsiders’ identified as the cause of that issue. The foundations of a moral panic may have some truth to them, but the majority of claims made that fuel moral panics are false.

Some recent examples of moral panics are:

Telecommunication towers were destroyed during the coronavirus pandemic by people who falsely believed they were responsible for the spread of the virus
  • Pizzagate: during Donald Trump’s election campaign, claims were made that Hilary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria. These entirely false claims spread all over social media, resulting in the pizzeria owners receiving death threats

  • 5G as the cause of COVID-19: the belief that 5G is somehow dangerous; that it is used as part of the wider hoax of covid-19; and that you can even protect yourself against it with a bioshield.

  • The Momo Challenge: where parents were led to believe that a disturbing character called Momo was popping up in Youtube videos, and giving children ‘challenges’ to harm themselves.

Using Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Sid described how a moral panic is made up of five key elements. We can look at these elements in the context of the Momo Challenge, to better understand them:

Concern: the worry that there is a threat to morality and normative culture. In the case of Momo, the threat was harm coming to children.

Hostility: moral outrage towards those who are deemed responsible for this threat. So with Momo, that would be the invisible forces who invented the character, and put it into Youtube videos.

Disproportionality: there was no proof that a character called Momo was popping up in Youtube kids videos, but the response was still huge: police forces and schools issued warnings to parents and children across several continents.

Consensus: any moral panic needs wide-spread agreement that the threat is real, and needs to be removed. Even the BBC were reporting on Momo, as if it was fact.

Volatility: moral panics dissipate as quickly as they erupt. The Momo panic seemed to come out of nowhere, and for no obvious reason, (stemming from a sculpture made by a Japanese special effects company), and then was very quickly forgotten about.

What is moral entrepreneurship?

Another important part of the moral panic is the moral entrepreneur. These are people who will use their influence to start or spread moral panics. Who are these people? Sid explained that anyone can be a moral entrepreneur – especially nowadays, because social media has significantly lowered the bar to reaching wider audiences. Someone with a large online platform who speaks out against an issue or group could be labelled as a moral entrepreneur.

Sid cited Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Moral Construction in his description. According to this text, moral entrepreneurs can come from elite groups (such as celebrities or politicians), interest groups (covering professional bodies, government employees, and broad middle class), or grass roots organisations. You can also look at moral entrepreneurs as sitting on a spectrum between 'genuine concern' and 'cynical self-interest'.

Alex Jones: a moral outrage entrepreneur

So, with this in mind, it’s easy to describe someone like Alex Jones as a moral entrepreneur. Contrastingly, Greta Thunberg also technically fits this description. But there is a distinction between these two: Jones may be referred to as a ‘moral outrage entrepreneur’ whereas Thunberg is a moral entrepreneur in the broader sense.

The next section will go into more detail about how moral entrepreneurs use moral panics to become or remain influential.


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The impact of social media on moral panics

The scale and speed at which you can share information on social media has brought about more moral panic in recent years. Sid covered five key impacts that social media has had on moral panic.

Firstly, we have the democratisation of the media. Social media has siphoned power away from traditional media outlets, and has therefore lowered the bar for the following:

  • Becoming a moral entrepreneur: anyone with a large enough online following can become one

  • The creation of more moral panics: because more people have greater access to larger audiences

  • Allowing the attacked ‘outsiders’ to fight back: because they have a platform too, and this amplifies any potential or already existing friction.

Next is the further democratisation of moral entrepreneurship. Tying in with the last point, giving people the ability to reach wider audiences lowers the barrier to becoming a moral entrepreneur — suddenly you don't need the authority of an institution behind you, or for someone to give you column space so that you can speak your mind about an issue. You can broadcast your concerns on many platforms at once, and achieve media coverage that way.

This leads to greater incentivisation of moral entrepreneurship. You don’t have to be another Alex Jones to make a good income as a more entrepreneur. You can achieve success in a number of ways:

  • Validation, or even advertising revenue, from views, likes, follower/subscriber numbers, and so on.

  • Subscribers can donate, or even buy merch, to show support.

  • Even political validation, as seen with Carl Benjamin, who managed to gain a platform by being publicly abusive towards women online (such as during Gamergate in 2014), and used that to run as a UKIP candidate in 2019.

Gaining followers is also a way for a moral entrepreneur to demonstrate attempts to affect meaningful change around the issues they claim to care about – e.g. 'like and subscribe to continue the mission'. Really, this is just to continue their own personal success.

Social media has also enabled the re/deconstruction of the micro-public and folk devils. A ‘folk devil’ is another term for the outsiders that moral panics are hostile towards – they are the groups that are allegedly responsible for the threat in question. Traditionally, folk devils wouldn’t have a voice, but online spaces have given them a platform on which to fight back. This dynamic is now welcomed in moral panics, because it makes it easier to exaggerate the risks that the folk devils pose.

A ‘micro-public’ could be something like a Facebook group; essentially a subset of people who are brought together online, via a shared interest or concern. These can be enough for the consensus needed to start a moral panic. Often the concerns of different micro-publics overlap, which means they can collaborate (instead of compete, as was the case before social media) with each other to be heard.

The final impact is the re/decontextualisation of moral panics and timelessness. Ideas from other moral panics are now recycled into new ones. Or real stories are taken, and key elements are discarded to make way for a fresh moral panic. We saw this with how Qanon splintered #SaveTheChildren: they hijacked a legitimate anti-trafficking campaign in order to spread false claims that the Democratic party were heavily involved in child-trafficking.

What are the results of all this, and how do we counter them?

Sid concluded the talk by outlining resulting outcomes of moral panics in digital spaces, and what can be done about these.

The results:

  1. These new moral panics feed dangerously into broader culture wars, and act as an accelerant. Because of the anonymous nature of online communities, moral panics have become a deeper, but much more subtle, problem.

  2. Misinformation and incendiary views are both incentivised, because this is the kind of content that performs well and is easy to monetise. This creates a vicious cycle of bad content.

  3. Moral panics can now be used as a tool to give legitimacy to conspiracy theories, and these in turn are used as foundations for partisan politics.

What should we do to counter these results?

  1. Companies should consider how they might add friction to becoming a moral entrepreneur. For instance, making it harder to monetise on content creation platforms.

  2. Ethicists can ask how the moral panic framework can be applied to to issues such as misinformation

  3. Citizens should consider how the content we consume frames our interactions — what narratives seem to be prevailing? Are these just moral panics?

If you want to read about what was covered in Sid’s talk in more detail, you can view his slides here and follow Sid on Twitter at @SVR13


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