In 2010 I found myself in the middle of a moral panic, so began reading around the subject and watching how moral panics unfold. The panic was around East End strip pubs where I worked and that had been in the area for decades. Usually family businesses, run by the matriarch of the family, and an accepted part of the East End. Then a panic hit and suddenly these places were the gates of hell and all that was evil in the world emanated from them. People who had previously been oblivious to them were suddenly on a crusade. I went to a ‘debate’ in October 2011, called ‘Lap-Dancing: a choice or exploitation’ which demonstrated the mechanisms of power and politics perfectly and shocked me.
A small lobby group whips up fear until they create a panic. The narrative then moves on to ‘Something must be done!/Won’t anyone think of the children!’ and when it gets to this point you have manipulated your audience correctly and you will be able to legislate. But there was also a lot of manipulating being done to those who were creating the moral panic. A group that called it’s self Communities Against People Exploitation, that claimed to be helping the East London community, had a ‘feminist’ spokeswoman. This woman would give the full dramatic performance about the evils of ‘pornification’, ‘objectification’, ‘sexualisation’ throwing out all the fashionable buzzwords to appeal to her audience. However a little investigation using the Land Registry and the good old Internet showed that she was not running this organization. It was actually run by a man who lived in leafy Surrey but, surprise surprise, owned property right next to one of the strip pubs he was trying to close down. From this moment on I lost what little respect I still had for the 3rd wave feminist movement. Was this all about property development and investment? Were they being manipulated by the ‘patriarchy’ that they so despised in order for that ‘patriarchy’ to make money? Were they complicit or ignorant?
So it seems that moral panics can be very useful. They are generally created by pressure groups and lobby groups, often through good intentions and a genuine trigger, which is then picked up by media as they have a lot of space to fill. Column inches, 24-hour news, websites etc. There is a lot of content to be generated so even if the journalist or editor doesn’t really believe in the panic it’s their job to explore all the angles. They run opposing editorials asking ‘Is this right? Is this wrong?, look for the human angle, can they get a confessional piece from someone involved? Run the story for a bit as it gives you something to talk about, to fill airtime with, to fill column inches. These mechanisms of the media are borne out of necessity but do our governments look at these panics and view them as useful? Are they a very convenient smoke screen? Can they use them to implement certain policies that the public may find unpalatable?
The panic of the moment is porn on the internet, the very thing that drove the early development of the internet, and it makes sense if you look at it in an historical and political big picture way. So let us look at the timeline of the last 3 years, the changes that have happened and the role of the Internet in all of this. Three years is a really short space of time for governments to lose control and I’d take a bet that there have been some fraught behind closed doors meetings.
1.The first strand is that too much classified information has been freely distributed online beginning with Bradley Manning. The decorated US private released around 750,000 restricted documents to Wikileaks causing major embarrassment to the United States government and many of its allies. Including of course the UK but also allies such as Saudi Arabia when it was discovered they had been urging the west to go to war with their Middle Eastern nemesis Iran. Then between April and November 2010 Wikileaks and news outlets around the world published these documents to all their readers and viewers. To these news outlets this was like striking gold (or oil). Julian Assange is now running from the US government rightly fearing a fate similar to Bradley Manning. So first it was Bradley and Julian and then when all had seemed calm Edward Snowden struck. Releasing all the details of the Prism surveillance operation that included America spying on it’s European allies and once again causing great embarrassment to the US and UK governments. (As GCHQ had also been implicated.)
I would take a guess that western governments and especially the UK and US governments are no longer enamored with the idea of a free and open Internet.
2.The second political and historical strand that has been a feature of the past three years is revolution. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly ignited the Arab world into demanding freedom and democracy. From the success of Tunisia to the disaster of Syria, the Arab world has been finding it’s voice, and this has been coordinated on social media. Syria has been especially bad as Iran and Hezbollah are now involved and this could result in years of trouble. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Buzzfeed have allowed those protesting against their governments to organize and sometimes win. Western politicians have been watching, and saying carefully vague sound bites in support for democracy, as long-term allies like Mubarak were toppled. Even prosperous and relatively secular Turkey has seen a popular uprising that no mainstream media reported until the din on social media got so loud they couldn’t ignore it.
I wonder if there is a general fear in governments that us normal people are starting to get a little too knowledgeable and possibly feeling a little too empowered?
3.The third strand in recent years is the recession, which has hit Europe particularly hard. Countries like Greece are languishing in a terrible depression with lots of anger amongst people and extremist groups growing popular. There has also been a raising of awareness in the United States with the Occupy movement starting in November 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. One of the causes of the Arab Spring was youth unemployment and cost of living. The world is getting more and more populous and those at the top are not releasing any wealth so an anger is fermenting. Many young people in Europe are unemployed and over qualified with no hope of attaining the future they dreamed of. What if revolution is not confined to the Arab world? Which can be understood in terms of freedom, what if a European nation is the next to fall? Then it is no longer an ‘us and them’ situation it becomes something bigger? Maybe something about social justice in general?
Again, I can’t imagine our governments feeling very easy with all of this anger, and the information in the hands of the masses.
Information, revolution and recession; it’s like a perfect storm of poverty, over population, inequality, empowerment and access to all information and the ability to communicate it. I’m pretty sure these three strands have made our leaders feel rather uneasy. So what are the governments of the world going to do about this potential dangerous set of circumstances that have evolved in only three short years? Conveniently for the UK Government, the ‘sexualisation’ moral panic has been rumbling away for around a decade, and conveniently it has reached the ‘Something must be done!/Won’t anyone think of the children!’ stage. The groundwork has already been laid which is very handy indeed. So could it be that David Cameron’s recent attack on Internet porn is in fact a smoke screen?
The porn panic has been fuelled by supposedly well-meaning but extremely foolish people and lobby groups and will now come back to bite. After all we are not party to the late night phone calls from Washington that may go something like this,
‘The United States may be unable to work with the United Kingdom unless …… (insert instructions here)’.
It seems like this has everything to do with limiting access to information in general and protecting the power structure. The clamp down on Internet porn is, in my opinion, all about censoring the Internet brought to the fore due to recent world events and absolutely nothing to do with protecting the innocence of children. It may also be run by Chinese Internet filtering firm Huawei, who are no doubt censorship experts.
So beware of moral panics, as there may be a hidden agenda behind them. All is not what it seems on the surface and be aware of new ones forming. What is the end game of these panics and who exactly benefits from them?