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What Contributes to a Moral Panic and Whether or Not You Believe the "Panic" Is Realistic in the Case of Coronavirus

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Don’t panic, we’re told. The risk is low to most people. You don’t need a mask unless you’re sick or a health care provider. Among healthy people, it often ends up being no worse than the flu. On the other hand: This thing is spreading

The deaths are mounting. The end is nowhere in sight. As the number of cases and the number of places being infected by the novel coronavirus grows, everyone from Wall Street to the man on the street seems rattled. But how much of the fear is being driven more by emotions than facts?

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Regardless of whether we classify the new coronavirus as a pandemic, it is a serious issue. In less than two months, it has spread over several continents. Pandemic means sustained and continuous transmission of the disease, simultaneously in more than three different geographical regions. Pandemic does not refer to the lethality of a virus but to its transmissibility and geographical extension. What we certainly have is a pandemic of fear. The entire planet’s media is gripped by coronavirus. It is right that there is deep concern and mass planning for worst-case scenarios

And, of course, the repercussions move from the global health sphere into business and politics. But it is also right that we must not panic. It would be wrong to say there is good news coming out of COVID-19, but there are causes for optimism; reasons to think there may be ways to contain and defeat the virus. And lessons to learn for the future. The first cases of AIDS were described in June 1981 and it took more than two years to identify the virus (HIV) causing the disease. With COVID-19, the first cases of severe pneumonia were reported in China on December 31, 2019 and by January 7 the virus had already been identified. The genome was available on day 10. We already know that it is a new coronavirus from group 2B, of the same family as SARS, which we have called SARSCoV2. The disease is called COVID-19. It is thought to be related to coronavirus from bats. Genetic analyses have confirmed it has a recent natural origin (between the end of November and the beginning of December) and that, although viruses live by mutating, its mutation rate may not be very high.

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Together such conditions promote anxious alarm. By allowing users to remain cloistered within their preferred tribes and visions of reality, digital platforms encourage misrecognition and distort understanding of social issues, making the acceptance of bloated rhetoric more likely. Accordingly, they obstruct heterogeneous interactions and exposure to opposing perspectives, dynamics long identified as precluding the root causes of panics – intolerance and hostility

Finally, by inflating the visibility of inflammatory content, social media mobilize animosity towards common enemies and transform uneasy concern into full-blown panic. Alongside breeding fissiparous societies, multi-media platforms can be wielded to engineer crises. Historically, panics require the mass media to generate sufficient concern and indignation. Social media expand the pathways of panic production. As detailed below, by allowing ordinary netizens to identify and sanction transgression, they unleash participatory, crowd-sourced panics (Morgan J, Shaffer K. (2017). Additionally, as architectures of amplification, their structural features can be commandeered to promote moral contests that are surreptitious, automated, and finely calibrated in their transmission and targeting. Conventional wisdom suggests that panics are spearheaded by seasoned and advantageously positioned activists and elites. By expanding capacities of media production and distribution, digital communications permit citizens to directly publicize issues and promote collective action. Typically this has been associated with amateur news-making and attempts to document injustice and promote transparency and accountability but scholars have recently documented opposing trends, where social media are appropriated to define and enforce public morality (Tanz J. (2017). As lay actors increasingly participate in the exposure and sanctioning of deviance, distinctions between the media, the public and moral entrepreneurs are blurring, ensuring that panics stem from unorthodox sources and display new discursive and interactional contours.

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In a word, politicians often fuel a moral panic by aligning themselves with the news media and law enforcers in a moral crusade against the evils introduced by the folk devils. In other instances, such as the U.S. war on drugs launched in the late 1980's, a key politician such as President Ronald Reagan may define the folk devils—that is, urban crack cocaine dealers—and precipitate a moral panic over the evils of crack cocaine and alleged threats these evils present. The fifth and final set of actors, the public, is the most important player in the creation of a moral panic. Public agitation or concern over the folk devils is the central element of a moral panic. A moral panic only exists to the extent that there is an outcry from the public over the alleged threat posed by the folk devils. Moreover, the success of politicians, law enforcers and the media in precipitating and sustaining a moral panic is ultimately contingent upon how successfully they fuel concern and outrage toward the folk devils among the public.

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Monahan T. (2010) Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Morgan J, Shaffer K. (2017) Sockpuppets, secessionists, and Breitbart. Medium, 31

Powell A, Stratton G, Cameron R. (2018) Digital Criminology: Crime and Justice in Digital Society. London: Routledge.

Powers E. (2017) My news feed is filtered? Awareness of news personalization among college students. Digital Journalism 5(10): 1315–1335.

Szablewicz M. (2010) The ill effects of ‘opium for the spirit’: A critical cultural analysis of China’s internet addiction moral panic. Chinese Journal of Communication 3(4): 453–470.

Tanz J. (2017) Journalism fights for survival in the post-truth era.

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