Our Epic Moral Panic

Photo by Josh Hild

The United States is embroiled in a moral panic about saving children from professionals working in medicine and education. I have studied media impacts on social life for 50 years. This recent panic is driven by the politics of fear and efforts to delegitimize major social institutions.  At least  44 states have introduced laws restricting what teachers can teach about racism and sexism, and some 469 bills have been proposed banning booksattacking LGBTQ+ subjects and students’ rights, including restricting trans-gender use of restrooms consistent with their gender identity, participation in sports, and blocking “gender affirming” counseling and pharmaceutical/medical treatment for children. ”

Governor DeSantis and other moral entrepreneurs seek political support from parents by promoting the claims that their children need to be protected from facts, history, books, ideas, and sexual preferences and orientations that are contrary to the Republican party’s ideological positions about morality and everyday life. Florida’s Governor DeSantis signed a bill banning colleges and universities from supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs (DEI):Said DeSantis, “If you look at the way this has actually been implemented across the country, DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination.” In another state, South Carolina’s House Bill 4605 seeks to protect children from any material that might cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their “race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion, or political beliefs.

Sociologists in the 1970s identified moral panic as a reaction to a condition, behavior, person, or group believed to threaten the values, interests, or well-being of a community. The reaction is usually led by moral entrepreneurs who arouse fears and marshal media coverage that can lead to regulations, punishment, policy, and laws. The common threads for most scholarly and popular analysis of fear, especially in American society, are crime, victimization, drugs, and violence. Research shows that the reaction to the threats were extreme and often created other problems, including repressive policies and laws. Recent attacks on educators and medical professionals involve social media and ostensibly are oriented to protecting children’s mental health.

Studies indicate that avowed threats to children gain swift support especially when promoted with social media that are instantaneous, visual, and personal. For example, the moral panic about missing, abducted, and sex-trafficked children has been around for decades. Claims that hundreds of thousands of children were being abducted and harmed by strangers were shown to be false, but the belief persists. One example is QAnon, an extremist conspiracy theory, which maintains that progressive politicians are satanic-worshipping, pedophiles, who feast on the blood and adrenaline of young children.  They believe that Donald Trump was attempting to stop this exploitation. In December 2017, one follower, who was armed with a semi-automatic weapon, entered a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC that had been described as a headquarters for child kidnapping. He was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.

Many voters view online reports about politicians involved with pedophilia and child sex trafficking and subscribe to these fantasies and conspiracies promoting fear. QAnon conspirators have prolonged it, claiming that more than 800,000 children are “trafficked,” killed, and exploited by pedophiles, including many politicians. Two advocates were elected to the House of Representatives in 2020.  One poll in October 2021, found that about half of Trump supporters believed these outlandish claims, and only 17% of his followers rejected the imaginary claims.  Leaders who amplify these fear-inducing messages contribute to a narrative that some legitimate institutions may be harming children by teaching about history and racism, on the one hand, and promoting tolerance and acceptance of diverse students, including gay and transgender people, on the other hand.

Rather than adjusting to a diverse population of children with different beliefs and lifestyles, numerous politicians prefer to stigmatize them and deny their right to exist. This is accomplished by fanning social media flames to frighten parents about their children’s safety and future, while also forbidding educators and medical professionals from educating and assisting our kids, and threatening them with losing their jobs, fines, and even imprisonment. This approach to governance relies on media outlets playing to unfounded fears and deep-seated anxiety and prejudices about leadership and public institutions. The public is being played and our critical institutions are being challenged at our national peril.

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump (2023).