Technology Moral Panics: But Think Of The Children!

from the everyone-panic dept

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.

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Comments on “Technology Moral Panics: But Think Of The Children!”

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Fun Lovin' Criminal says:

Sure, but....

Gun ownership and usage can be tracked far more accurately. If one registers a gun it can obviously be tallied. If someone sees a gun in use, or suffers from a gunshot wound onc can assume rather accurately that a gun was involved (if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…)

Let’s not confuse statistical assumptions with actual statistics.

If 50,000 people are harmed or hilled by a gun in the US eveyr year I’m inclined to place considerably more accuracy on that number than I am the “50,000” online predators lurking on MySpace.

You never know says:

The way the media looks at it, They can not be accountable for what “you” can’t disprove. Now if some one actually does the legwork and accumulates the evidence to disprove their claim then they will simply side step the issue saying the real issue is the crime, not the reporting. In actuality the crime is sensationalized to better sell the story. Case and point, the show where they bait internet predators with the chat room “hot date” sting, then humiliate them on national TV! I mean, one time it’s news. Twice is a “Real TV” game show where the contestants win an extended free stay at the local Cross Bar Country Club! Wouldn’t be better to let the authorities do their job and the news just reports the numbers on the nightly news? Or perhaps a list of names in the newspapers. Or better yet, a link on every chat room to a national database of known predators and what ever username that are using at the time..

Bengie says:

Child predators

The first thing that comes to mind is that South Park where they built a wall around SP and kicked the children out because the news said the children aren’t safe from their own parents.

In actualilty….A child is more likely to be sexually molested/abused from their own mother than a stranger, yet alone a stranger they met in an internet chat room.

This all goes back to trying to stop stupid people from breeding. /sigh a hopeless cause

Ruffzan says:


Wow, to me it seems that most of the predators are techies that sit in dark rooms all day on the computer or gaming. Maybe its because they are complete dorks or so socially inept that they can’t get dates with adults so they go after kids. That must be why you all defend each other. Give me a gun over a kid raping and murdering techie perv any day, oh and at the risk of being politically incorrect if our government doesn’t start protcting the innocent, some of us might just need to use those guns!!!!!!!

DanC says:

Re: Re: Re: Predators

If you think the concern and protection of kids being protected from you pasty hacking nerds is retarded well then make me their king and learn to debate not name call frodo.

Maybe its because they are complete dorks or so socially inept that they can’t get dates with adults so they go after kids. That must be why you all defend each other.

Criticizing someone for name calling only works if it doesn’t make you a hypocrite. Your initial post was overly insulting, made absolutely no valid points, and was simply an uninformed opinion.

Debate involves backing up your statements with reasoning. Since you have completely failed to provide any, you are in no position to criticize on that front either.

DanC says:

Re: Predators

to me it seems that most of the predators are techies that sit in dark rooms all day on the computer or gaming.

Translation: I’m going to start my comment by attempting to insult the perceived audience of techdirt, primarily because I don’t have any actual evidence or rationale for my point.

if our government doesn’t start protcting the innocent, some of us might just need to use those guns!!!!!!!

And this demonstrates the problem: the media over exaggerates the problem, which in turn inspires a misinformed public to demand that the government work to “protect the innocent”, ie. children. The government responds by passing vaguely worded laws that not only fail in their goal of protecting children, but also unfairly abridge freedom of speech, which is why COPA was declared unconstitutional.

The other problem created is that a small portion of the public that has been convinced by the media will irrationally attack anyone pointing out the problems involved with these so-called protection laws.

grown up says:

I hate children

Children are pain in the ass. They are too demanding, make lot of noise, eat a lot of food and are a mess! We should just leave it to predators who come through series of pipes and tubes to destroy them.

On a serious note, I do believe we need to stop internet predators. But the more effort should come from parents and technology companies should not be unreasonably harassed. Parents “must” control what their children watch and the time they spend on internet.

Jesse Anderson Jjesse285 (profile) says:

Moral Panic?

Well my Tears of the sun just get more madder than what it was before I read this, if they are afraid of Technology and some crazy people’s that run around eating little children, which some should be eaten, they should take the time to and along with our Technology to run the cost of live back to a normal level so all can enjoy life.

barrenwaste (profile) says:

Protect the Innocents

Yup, it is clearly the fault of social networking, and all those involved with social networking, that teenaged kids all talk about sex. And since that is thier fault, it also follows that any crimes or injuries resulting from such imature behavior is thier fault as well. I mean, we all know that I 75 is really at fault for all traffic related crimes and injuries that happen upon it, and this is no different. I mean, it’s obvious that without social networks Adolecents wouldn’t be able to group together and speak of these things, and therefore, predators couldn’t find them. Seriously, with logic like this, and the resulting legislature, I’m wondering who’s going to protect us innocents from our own frigging government? Someone slap the stupid out of them, please!

peter cost says:

moral panics

Im 52 years old and can remember when newspapers and tv news had self respect. now they will say anything to keep you watching or reading for one second longer!If they tell the truth its a mistake on there part!but when we are lied to every day by the tv news, papers and goverment the word moral is meaningless.the only thing to panic about is the garbage they feed us day after day!!!

ZMan! (user link) says:

Moral Panics

I think everyone should read the following book entitled “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt”, it explains many of these panics as well.

The media hype the fear factor for ratings, viewers and more money from sponsors, and politicians do it to get your vote when they cannot be voted into office any other way.

Sex offenders have become the latest SCAPEGOAT for many people.

Schmacky says:

Re: Moral Panics

Yes, yes most people are aware that politicians love bandwagons as much as slashdotters, wooters, and bloggers do. But, did anyone ever wonder… Since the truth and fairness in broadcasting act was done away with, are these politicians putting the squeeze on news corporations to give attention to these scapegoat issues? I mean… we all perceive it as it hits the news and the politicians react in order to be re-elected. But doesn’t it seem more tactful and more likely to bring them success if they were to orchestrate the whole thing in their favor to begin with?

I’m not saying I believe that conspiracy theory, I’m just saying I’m wonder if they’re smart enough to do it.

Blaine P. says:

Re: 50,000 example

Oooh! 50,000 sounds like a large number! It must be right, if they went to the effort to contact 50,000 people!

Kind of like how “The combined company will save $5 Billion in operational costs” People think again “Wow, that’s a big number” Then two years later another press release saying “10% of the workforce is laid off”. Nice! 3,000 people out of work, on corporate welfare (called “Unemployment”) and then government welfare. That’s a big number!

Because people like big numbers, maybe it’s time to wake up that some top executives are making 700x the pay of an average employee. CEOs making be paid equal to 700 of you. How do they do it? In China for example, they may be able to afford to hire 30-50 (or even more) people on your salary. Yes, when you can be replaced for an army, it’s no wonder!

I’m just waiting for the China-made Fords to show up at our ports to proclaim once and for all ‘Greed Won’.

Chris M. says:

Re: Re: 50,000 example

I agree with you! My wife works for a non-profit, and she just found out what the higher up are making. I can see $200 to $400K. One of them was in the $800K range. Oh, don’t get me started! If you live in Nassau county Long Island, the county execs gave them selves a pay raise that would make your hair curl. The pay raise was from 35K to 75K and if you make 105K you when up too 175K!I can see getting a pay raise, but by this much?

Yes, Greed is killing this nation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Knowing how simple it is to prevent… can anyone honestly fear this?
My take on the media hype fears are this. Most people don’t actually panic every time the news comes on. Most people don’t care about whatever new craze is sweeping the nation. The news however, will find and highlight two maybe three people that will give an interview saying how awful this new revelation is. The politicians rush in to take advantage of this new hyper sensationalized phobia and pass whatever they can to help themselves in its name. We are led to believe that the mass public falls for this. I am willing to be that most of them don’t.

John (profile) says:

No chance against emotion

Logic and a well-thought out argument doesn’t stand a chance against an emotional appeal. Even if university professors (with PhD’s!) and government agencies do study after study to disprove an idea, people will still believe it. This is exactly why so many media outlets report on the latest “predator” and never bother to mention any of the studies which show the complete opposite.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the real media reported a story just like the one in “South Park”. What will parents do if the media starts saying that parents are bad for kids? Will legislators create new rules “to protect the children” from their own parents?

Ruffzan says:

Re: No chance against emotion

Wow what a surprise that kids being raped and killed would be emotional. If you morons believe that kids are not being victimized due to lack of government responsiblity through tougher sentences and better regulation you epitomize every stereo type of the techie nerdy perv. Put down the joystick (no pun intended,or is there) and look at the damage and havoc wreaked on the most innocent of our society by the most useless, but hey what do you care you have to get back to your dugeons and dragons virtual game because that is the only society that will accept you

DanC says:

Re: Re: No chance against emotion

Wow what a surprise that kids being raped and killed would be emotional.

Yes, and look at what happens with that emotional response. We get poorly conceived arguments such as yours that advocate the creation of “protect the children” laws that do anything but their stated goal. And when this is pointed out, you respond with insults instead of reasoning.

If you morons believe that kids are not being victimized due to lack of government responsiblity through tougher sentences and better regulation

Sorry, but parental responsibility trumps governmental responsibility. Throwing your kid on a computer so you don’t have to deal with them is bad parenting, and passing laws that allow those parents shirk responsibility and claim is wrong.

look at the damage and havoc wreaked on the most innocent of our society by the most useless

As you previously stated, you seem to be pushing the idea that most online predators are the “techie nerdy” types, while providing no real basis for this argument.

DanC says:

Re: Re: Re: No chance against emotion

Ugh…need to proofread next time. Should have read:

Sorry, but parental responsibility trumps governmental responsibility. Throwing your kid in front of a computer so you don’t have to deal with them is bad parenting, and passing laws that allow those parents to shirk responsibility is wrong.

Having parents actively monitoring internet use, educating their kids, and making and enforcing rules for internet use will accomplish more than any “child protection” law. Unfortunately, there are too many parents willing to plead powerlessness when it comes to raising their kids.

Ruffzan says:

I just realized...

Every time I post I get emotional. I now understand why. It’s because I’m a mother. I’m a 400 pound, Hispanic mother with 12 kids who don’t respect me because I’m 65 years old and incapable of taking charge of them. I just wish someone could put a stop to me before I sicken myself and all of you any further.

Juanita Guitterez says:

Re: I just realized...

Wow, Ruffzan, me too! Except, I like to eat cheese. A pound of parmesan deep fat fried in pork lard and a diet coke really helps me to wake up in the morning.

For lunch, it’s not uncommon for me to attack the CheeseWiz guy as he stocks the shelves at my local grocery store. Again, eat it with a diet coke. You got to have the Diet Coke!!! It cancels out the calories– I saw that on a report on NBC.

Ruffzan says:

Re: I just realized...

Wow, my comments were hacked by a skeezy techie perv how impressive. My kids have always been safe due to their lack of exposure to socially inept doom playin sissies that haven’t had a woman since a women had them. Don’t be so angry nerds, I’m sure there is a star wars convention starting soon somwhere

Not cowardly, but certainly anonymous (profile) says:

Re: Re: I just realized...

It’s understandable for a mother to become emotional. But at 65, I would hope that all twelve of your children are grown or at least in their late teens. At this point, there’s not a lot of parenting you can do.

As for your comments about nerds not getting women: Nerds make a lot of money these days, and money is very attractive.

Chronno S. Trigger says:

Won't someone please think of the children

We coddle our children. We expect the government to protect our children for us. We do not want any harm, emotional or physiological, to happen to them. We baby-proof everything, we lock our children away from the world until they are 18 and then throw them out, now unprotected against the dangers that occur.

There are people out there that rape adults. Teaching our children to protect themselves now will help them protect themselves in the future.

The government needs to go after the people that are doing this not the tools they use. Parents need to teach their children to protect themselves from those that slip threw, and that is happening a lot since the government is going after social networking sites and video game consoles.

Won’t someone please think of the children’s future. There I put two big issues into one sentence, the children and the future.

@Ruffzan. Blaming techs for child molesting? Have you ever payed attention to anything? All I see are old fat guys who barely know how a computer works. People like politicians, ex-jocks who are past their prime, overly weird musicians, priests.

The overly introvert, D&D playing tech is just an outdated stereotype. It’s not valid in this day and age.

I’m not going to call you a retard, that would be an insult to the mentally handicapped. I will call you what you are. A person who’s outdated way of thinking is holding back society. Catch up with the times or get the hell out of our way.

Sorry to the other TechDirt readers. I am just so sick of prejudice.

Maikeru76 (user link) says:

I rather skip the coffee, it's making me panicky

I really had to comment on this one…

Yup, I remember a truism that the more statistics, the more leaky the argument…

If you want to protect children from these “predators”…Why not fund law enforcement agencies, better pay and equipment 😉

And please…I remember another truism: “You can never legislate morality…”

George E says:

Invoking Godwin's Law

As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.

– from Mein Kampf

We all know what resulted from that. It is my opinion that when the “think of the children!” argument is trotted out, people should be reminded what atrocities have already been committed to that refrain.

We should leave parenting to the parents, and kick the politicos out of our daily lives, along with the press.

Anonymous Coward says:

Internet predators

Most of the state laws concerning internet child solicitation are unconstitutional and need to be re-written. They are based on this moral panic and are reactionary in nature and do nothing to solve the problem. Many innocent people are being convicted for engaging in protected adult speech (with other consenting adults). This is especially concerning when that protected speech is conducted in internet venues (e.g., chat rooms) that are restricted to adults (18+).

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