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Like Yesteryear's Handwringing Over Black Muggers or Violent Mods, The Fuss Over Internet Trolls Is a Classic Moral Panic

06/08/2013 22:37 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 10:12 BST
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It's time like this I wish the great sociologist Stanley Cohen were still alive. Best known for coining the phrase "moral panic" - in his classic 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics - Cohen would have made intellectual mincemeat of the current frenzied national handwringing over internet trolls.

The panic about these keyboard-tapping folk devils, this handful of very sad men who are said to pose an existential threat to the safety and self-esteem of the whole of womankind, conforms precisely to Cohen's definition of a moral panic. With one difference: the moral panic over trolls has even less substance, is even more divorced from fact and reality, than the moral panics expertly dissected by Cohen.

Cohen's Folk Devils and Moral Panics took the clash between mods and rockers in Clacton in 1964 as its case study. Cohen was intrigued at how a spasmodic violent run-in between two groups of youths was turned by politicians and the media into a sign that Britain was in a terrible state of decay. The drunken youths' encounter on the beach became front-page news. Cohen analysed the terminology used to describe the Clacton clash: "orgy", "riot", "siege", "screaming mob". The media also exaggerated the numbers involved, giving the skewed impression that a mass violent event had taken place and that mods and rockers were a threat to the social fabric itself.

Cohen said mods and rockers had been turned into the latest modern-day "folk devils" - that is, deviants who dressed weirdly and spoke foully and whose values ran counter to mainstream respectable values. They were the subject of a moral panic, he said - which is when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests".

The mass media, he said, play a key role in fanning moral panics, through a process of "deviation amplification" - exaggerating both the numbers involved in a particular kind of behaviour and the impact that such behaviour has on society. Once a moral panic is set in motion, the "moral barricades" - the apparently flimsy barrier between decent society and the devilish deviants - are "manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people", said Cohen.

Could there be a better description of the furious fuss over internet trolls? Here, too, the deviant behaviour of very small numbers of people is amplified by both campaigners and the media until it seems like trolls are currently the greatest threat to the moral, social order, a "blight" on society. Here, too, the media use extreme language to describe trolls' behaviour: women are being held "under siege"; trolls are exercising a "reign of terror"; they are "killing the internet".

Cohen also talked about the tendency of moral panic merchants to turn small problems that could have been dealt with "locally" into national frenzies - and in the troll scare, too, a problem that could have been dealt with discretely, such as by blocking certain individuals or reporting the more extreme ones to the police, has instead been turned into the focus of national fury and urgent, showy politicking and policymaking. Also, once again the "moral barricades" protecting society from deviant behaviours have been hastily erected and are being manned - or perhaps womanned - by self-styled "right-thinking people": politicians, commentators, those who define themselves as Twitter's "nice" participants.

There's a myth that only white-haired old farts and the Daily Mail do moral panics, usually focusing on black muggers or gay-sex aficionados. But as we've seen in recent weeks, trendy campaigners and right-on feminists are just as adept at turning infinitesimally small numbers of deviant people into a violent screaming mob that the whole of society and the political sphere must talk about, fret over and seek to control.

If anything they've pushed the boat out even farther than earlier moral panic merchants: panicking over that pathetic and rare breed of person known as the threatening troll makes yesteryear's panics over mods or football hooligans, who were at least pretty substantial groups of people, seem rational in comparison.

By the way, to describe the fuss over internet trolls as a moral panic is not to say the problem doesn't exist. Of course it does, just as there really were small groups of violent mods and rockers in the mid-1960s. It's just that the very worst way to deal with such a problem is to blow it out of proportion and to turn it into the focus of national moralistic angst, since that only nurtures fear and irrationalism. It might provide "right-thinking people" with a moral thrill, but it will give rise to kneejerk new rules, laws and other stupidities.