Recently I wrote about a dreadful article in USA Today hyping up the "oh-no-think-of-the-children problem" of predators using console games
to seek out kids. This followed similarly bogus
news articles hyping up the threats of predators on social networks. Yet, all the "panic" raised by those articles has politicians practically shoving each other aside to introduce legislation
against those social networks, or just various Attorneys General threatening
those social networks without any evidence that there's a significant problem, other than a few totally hyped up news articles.
It turns out that a PhD Candidate at NYU, Alice Marwick has recently published a paper discussing exactly this type of "moral panic,"
focusing on the situation in 1996 in which Time Magazine famously published a scare mongering article about porn online, now known as the Rimm Report. Sean Garret, who pointed me to Marwick's paper has a good analysis of the Rimm Report's ripple effects
as well (as does Adam Thierer
). Basically, the report, which claimed that 83.5% of images online were porn was based on ridiculously faulty premises and research
. It was almost entirely wrong.
And while Time Magazine came out of it looking bad, it didn't stop politicians from using the "moral panic" created by the article to push through the Communications Decency Act -- which after many years of wasted taxpayer money was eventually declared unconstitutional. What's scary though, is how this process works: newspaper basically overhypes a non-story into a "big scary trend" and almost immediately politicians start pushing for questionable "save the children!" legislation:
This paper is about moral panics over contemporary technology, which I call "technopanics." I use two examples, the cyberporn panic of 1996 and the contemporary panic over online predators and MySpace, to demonstrate the links between media coverage and content legislation. In both cases, Internet content legislation is directly linked to media–fueled moral panics that concern uses of technology deemed harmful to children. This is of particular interest right now as a new Internet content bill, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), is being debated in Congress. The technopanic over "online predators" is remarkably similar to the cyberporn panic; both are fueled by media coverage, both rely on the idea of harm to children as the justification for Internet content restriction, and both have resulted in carefully crafted legislation to circumvent First Amendment concerns. While both panics have their roots in legitimate concerns, I am not primarily concerned with the extent of the purported harms. However, my research demonstrates that the legislation proposed (or passed) to curb these problems is an extraordinary response; it is misguided and in many cases masks the underlying problem.
The paper goes on to rip apart the media in blowing up these technopanics, often using outright incorrect or made up data, such as the idea that "50,000 sexual predators are online at any given time," a favorite of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The problem is that this number was made up out of nowhere. In tracking down where the number came from, the sources basically admit they pulled it out of thin air, with one saying that the number 50,000 is a:
"Goldilocks" figure -- "Not small and not large." He added that it was the same figure that was used by the media to describe the number of people killed annually by Satanic cults in the 1980s, and before that was cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s.
But that didn't stop Dateline NBC from using it repeatedly -- leading to politicians claiming it was fact. Marwick systematically goes through the various stats like this one used by politicians and destroys each one as being false or misleading. But, of course, neither the press, which popularized them, nor the politicians using them to push through legislation, are interested in the truth. They want sensationalism, because that helps both of them.
The paper concludes that this new law, DOPA, is targeting exactly the wrong thing (i.e., not the actual problem) and is merely a response to yet another moral panic that is likely to die out as people realize it's not as big a deal as the press and politicians are making it out to be. In the short term, though, passing the law could be quite harmful. Beyond wasting millions in taxpayer dollars (like the CDA and COPA did), it could make it more difficult for kids to use social networks and certain web services for beneficial purposes.