Albany Times Union
America’s newest moral panic
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee last week, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, raised a number of important and complex policy questions about how society might better regulate the wayward social media giant.
But she also raised a very basic question, one for which neither the hearing nor her leaked internal documents provided a clear answer.
The question is: Is social media a danger to teenagers? The answer is: We have no idea.
Nobody really does — not child-development experts, not technology companies, not teenagers and not, alas, hapless parents like myself. And in jumping to the conclusion that Facebook’s Instagram platform and other social media services will be the ruin of the next generation, we — the news media in particular and society generally — may be tripping into a trap that has gotten us again and again: a moral panic in which we draw broad, alarming conclusions about the hidden dangers of novel forms of media, new technologies or new ideas spreading among the youth.
Comic books, television, rock music, rap music, disco, video games, Ebonics and political correctness are among the subjects that have generated mass panic in the past. You’d think that this litany of media jumpiness would prevent new scares, but we remain as panicky as ever — note our culture’s current preoccupation with the supposed scourges of critical race theory and cancel culture.
In the past couple of years I have become especially wary of such panics, because the phenomenon is an obsession of two of my favorite media critics, journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes, the creators of a brilliant podcast called “You’re Wrong About.” The show takes a revisionist look at media narratives that once sent the culture into hair-singed worry — things like the “satanic panic” of the 1980s (are witches running your child’s day care center?), the “sexting” scare of the late 2000s and the widely exaggerated fear, in the 1990s, that urban gangs posed a terrible threat to public safety.
Although each “You’re Wrong About” episode focuses on a particular panic, Marshall and Hobbes’ larger project has been to create a kind of cartography of media dread — to map how such narratives of fear take hold in media and hang on even when they are supported by little evidence. Their work suggests the central appeal of pumping up fright: Moral panics often redirect society’s attention away from large, difficult problems — what are we going to do