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Moral Panics and Rumors

When the world turns its mean side to the public, rumors amplified in the Internet/cable news age often slip past our critical thinking skills.

"Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!” It’s a dangerous world out there today. Scams, rumors and urban legends proliferate and seem uniquely linked to our media-dominated, Internetted, socially networked societies.

Yet if we look at the pre-electronic 17th-century witch scares of Salem, we see that history has regularly been filled with the failure of critical skills to address fantastical rumors, suppress fear and redress pseudo-scientific claims.

Central to many of these irrational outbreaks, both historically and today, is the powerful concept of “moral panics.”

First used in 1971 by British sociologist Jock Young and more widely popularized by Stanley Cohen in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, moral panics are perceived threats to a society’s values presented in a stereotyped way by the media. Experts are dragged out to provide solutions in response to politicians’ and moral leaders’ outrage at alleged evil transgressions.

The responses are often disproportionate to the seriousness of the event. Remember the panic among understandably frightened parents that followed the tragic deaths at Columbine High School in 1999?

Within hours, 24-hour cable news shows found numerous teachers, preachers and political leaders offering pithy sociological, economic and psychological speculations about the causes of shooting massacres among today’s youth. The underlying tone was often moralistic, readily pointing out the decline in our core values. The news event initially stressed the moral decay of contemporary society but eventually did lead to a deeper focus on issues of bullying in schools.

SKEPTIC'S CAFEPeter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Certainly this shooting was a serious concern for parents everywhere. It’s clear why it received so much media attention: Sensational events are by definition rare, because most of the time kids go to school and return safely. That’s not newsworthy. Was the outcry proportionate, then, to the incident? After all, each day many more young people die from gang shootings, traffic accidents or poor health care than from school rampages — without similar widespread media coverage and moral outrage.

Consider too the media’s obsession when a child is missing or abducted. Rumors abound and the fear of stranger abduction becomes disproportionate to the actuality. Most missing kids are runaways or kidnapped by a relative. With the predictable set of experts, the news shows focus endlessly on these missing child stories (and more likely when they are white, middle class and female.) It’s understandable why the emotional story gets told. But critical thinking seems to disappear in the frenzy and gets lost in the moral outrage. Rarely are we presented with findings from research and balanced coverage.

A substantial amount of incorrect data and exaggerated media coverage proceeds with alacrity nowadays, thanks to the Internet and instantaneous Twitter feeds. The creation and spread of rumors and misinformation, especially in the context of a moral panic, is a well-known social process. Long a focus of study by psychologists and sociologists, rumors tend to proliferate in times of ambiguity and a lack of information. People (like TV pundits) often construct explanations to fill in missing information and offer speculative causes. Fueled by anxiety, these rumors take on a life of their own. Think back on the many stories that followed the events of 9/11 when there was a high degree of ambiguity and anxiety.

Some rumors of course may be playful like the Beatles’ “Paul is Dead” meme in 1969 Many rumors can be destructive when used to ruin the business competition or when interfering with important social and political initiatives.

According to a classic 1947 study by Gordon Allport and Leo Joseph Postman, as rumors get passed along, similar to the “telephone game” you played as a child, some details get eliminated (“leveled”), other information becomes highlighted (“sharpened”), all the while filtered (“assimilated”) through the participants’ selective personalities, biases and situations.

Rumors are a truly social process because they require interaction with others, even if mediated by electronic transmission. Yet that may be a problem today: We don’t know for sure who is spreading the questionable news and writing the blogs, or what makes the experts on cable news so expert. The first step then in dealing with rumors and moral panics requires assessing the credentials and biases of those disseminating the information, as best we can. Or as I often do when I hear about another folktale or rumor, I assess its veracity using such websites as or, both of which helped to quell some of the rumors and misinformation during the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

What is important for critical thinkers, however, is to understand the dynamics at work when moral panics generate rumors, whether about Satanic child abuse in schools (as in the infamous McMartin Preschool hysteria in the 1980s) or about the birthplace and religion of President Barack Obama. It’s an age-old social interaction of sharing unsubstantiated news with others, in part to account for missing or ambiguous information and to address some moral or social anxiety.

A rumor by definition is information yet to be proven true or false; it often ends with confirming or disproving facts. Occasionally, though, there are actual lions, tigers and bears out there. And it’s then that we need to have credible data from reliable sources to solve those real social problems.