This week seems to have been the week of the moral panic. Moral panics, according to Wikipedia, are:
‘in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo’
A moral panic is characterised by:
- Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative impact on society.
- Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.
- Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganised.
- Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
- Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.
In the good old days it was the main stream media who ‘operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they [were] not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking’.
Now though, we have social media to take that role. This week has seen the lady at the centre of ‘My Tram Experience’ and Jeremy Clarkson both demonised by what can only be described as mob rule.
Not everything surrounding the woman at the centre of My Tram Experience can be written about due to various laws relating to legal proceedings (and to that end, because I don’t fancy a fine for contempt, comments will be moderated), however, folk simply took what on the face of it appeared to be a racist rant, screamed and hollered about it – including putting out her name and address over social media, and invoked British Transport Police into taking action. She is currently remanded in custody for her own safety until a further hearing next week. Cue crowing from the mob that action not only had been taken, but action they approved of. Bad person in prison: job done. It’s that simple, right?
Moving swiftly on, Jeremy Clarkson then filled their whining void by making stupid comments about strikers. A man famed for making controversial comments makes controversial comments: shock.
The mob stepped up to the plate, shrieked their horror, Unison stepped in, and the BBC apologised. As did he, sort of (here).
Unison scored a spectacular own goal by putting out a press release (here) calling for his summary dismissal, and stating they were seeking legal advice as to what action they could take. David Allen Green wrote about that here.
It used to be that comments such as the ones we have seen on Twitter this week were confined to the pub. People would express their outrage, have a pint, and frankly, got over it – especially as each pub would have the wise old grey chap in the corner who would quietly express a contrary view, and urge them to think about the subject matter in hand.
But now, these comments are put out over Twitter. Herd mentality kicks in, the mob expresses their outrage, the outrage increases. The contrary view is not heard, indeed it is trampled upon, with scorn and vitriol poured over those who dare express it.
But what is hugely concerning is that authoritative bodies are taking notice of the mob, and taking knee-jerk action. Because social media is instant, they seem to believe their response needs to be immediate to quell the furore. Gone are the days where action was a considered, measured response, starting with the question of ‘Do we actually need to do anything at all’ and only if that was established in the positive, ‘What action do we need to take, and when’.
That is leading to poor decision making. I would suggest that in response to anything that kicks off on social media the first action should be to wait at least 24 hours, to see if sense prevails and becomes heard, as it so often does. Otherwise we run the risk of constantly kowtowing to mobs, who will come to expect an instantaneous response from an authoritative body. In short, we are running close to the risk of mob rule. Do we really want that?