They come out of nowhere, rise rapidly to an outraged crescendo, then die out just as quickly.
Moral panics are a phenomenon of modern Western cultures and reflect changes sweeping through those societies, people's mixed experience with new technologies and the collapse of confidence in established institutions. We can define a moral panic as a mini-controversy that temporarily outrages sections of the general public and exaggerates fears over the potential misuse of some technology or practice.
Whether the moral panic involves the accessibility of Internet pornography to children, clergy that are habitual sexual abusers of children, mobile phones that take and transmit digital photographs or cloning and stem cell research, the fears all have a basis in reality. Characterised by exaggerated fears, high media profile and outrage from some elements of the public, moral panics are perpetuated and sustained by the sensationalist reporting on the part of some sections of the media and by self-serving politicians and self-appointed guardians of public morals.
It should not be surprising that, in a technological society, it is new technologies that figure prominently as the focus of moral panics.
Internet pornography and its accessibility to children has been perhaps the longest-running moral panic of recent times. The fear is justified; however there is a certain irony in the fact that the same industry that made the panic possible has produced the tools to deal with it. Concerned parents can now download software to block offending websites and protect their children.
But not all such technologies have technical fixes. One of the more recent moral panics in Australia stemmed from the realisation that the new mobile phones which could take and transmit digital photographs could be misused to invade privacy.
The example used to demonstrate the invasive potential of such communications technology was the use of picture phones in the changing rooms of public swimming pools. Whether it was based on real or exaggerated fear remains unknown, however the example gained significant public exposure in the media at the expense of discussion of the valid use of such phones. Swimming pool management spoke of banning such phones in change rooms, however just how this could be accomplished remained largely unexplored. For the media, the concern was ironic because, as the photographic quality of mobile phone cameras improves, they are likely to find their way into reporting - some mobile phones already make photographs that are of sufficient quality for publishing on the websites of media organisations.
New technologies are often used in ways unforeseen by their designers and manufacturers. Moral panics involving new communications technologies are sometimes the unanticipated result of technological convergence - the amalgamation of different technologies, such as mobile phones and digital cameras - into a single device. Such technologies are more than the sum of their parts; mix photography and mobile telephony and you have a powerful tool for professional reporters and for public-minded citizens who come upon misdoing, such as the amateur videographer who exposed the King assault in the US some years ago. You also have a powerful tool for the few misusers out there.
The argument lends credibility to those who claim that technology is socially neutral - that it is simply the intention of the user of the technology which makes it good or bad. It is not so simple, however. Critics and technophobes say that the very existence of the technology makes misuse inevitable and that technology is far from a neutral force in society.
There have been other moral panics based on technology - outrage at the spread of computer viruses and the seeking of retribution for the perpetrators, computer hacking and the exaggerated penalties exacted, the cloning of animal life and stem cell research. Interestingly, the federal government took its time in addressing one of the major threats to email as a communications media for business and individuals - spam - said to constitute at least a third of all email messages. Legislation has fortunately now been passed, however legislation is national and the problem international, so hopes that new laws would stem the spread of spam are stillborn and the moral panic continues in modified form.
Technology based moral panics are not the only type. Some have to do with the collapse of the authority of social institutions. It is the revelation of misdoing that accelerates the declining authority of such institutions.
The continuing story of clergy who sexually abuse children has been prominent in the media for the past three years. That it has enjoyed such a run is in no small way due to the ineptitude and possible corruption of some churches in dealing effectively with it. Instead of confronting what was the obvious problem with habitual abusers in their ranks, to their discredit, they tried to sweep the issue under the ecclesiastical carpet. That failed, and the prestige of the churches has suffered badly.
Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.