A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order. The term first appears in the English language in The Quarterly Christian Spectator, a publication from 1830: ‘Do they not speak as men do on other subjects, when they express activity? And is it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or “moral panic?” ‘ It was used again in the following year, with the same meaning as the term used in modern social sciences: ‘Megandie a French physician of note on his visit to Sunderland where the Cholera was by the last accounts still raging praises the English government for not surrounding the town with a cordon of troops which as “a physical preventive would have been ineffectual and would have produced a moral panic far more fatal than the disease now is” ‘. Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media written in 1964.
According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) and often mistakenly credited as creator of the term, a moral panic occurs when “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as “folk devils”. Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo. The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they are not consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.