"[T]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."
"Never let a crisis go to waste."
-- Saul Alinsky
Psychology Today has told us that "a moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of society." It is "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media." Such a panic does not mean that that there is nothing to worry about. There really were Stalinist agents in the US Government when Joe McCarthy rose to denounce them. (We know this because the fall of the USSR led to many files becoming public -- for a while -- and names were named.) But the panic sets in when people begin to see Russians behind every tapestry or potted plant. It is the panic, rather than a rational caution or skepticism, that leads to overblown responses.
Per Wikipedia, the concept of moral panic was laid out by Stanley Cohen in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics
(Paladin, 1973). He studied public reaction to 1964 clashes in the UK between rival youth groups called “mods” and “rockers”during holiday weekends at beaches in Southern England. From these clashes -- and the media and public response to them
-- he developed a social theory of moral panic comprising five sequential stages
- An event, condition, episode or person is defined as a threat to the values, safety and interest of the wider society.
- The media then amplifies these apparent threats through inflammatory rhetoric These portrayals appeal to public prejudices, creating villains in need of social control (folk devils) and victims (the moral majority).
- The publicity surrounding the threat creates a sense of social anxiety leading to a public outpouring of concern.
- Government then responds to the public outcry and frames the alleged threat as being symptomatic of a wider social malaise that must be addressed.
- The moral panic and the responses to it transform the regulation of economy and society with the aim of tempering public outrage.