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Participatory Media and Moral Panic

Panel on "Participatory Media and Moral Panic" at the Social Media and Society conference

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Published on Thursday, February 12, 2015


The transformation of the media landscape invites us to rethink the dialectic between "media" and "moral panic", by focusing on the ways in which participatory media enables the public’s participation in moral panic. The coproduction of moral panic, via media participation, can be analyzed to document how individuals, through their relational links, trigger, maintain and propagate moral panic or how these forms of moral regulation affect sociability, notably those stigmatized by the controversial subject. This may also allow the study of how mediatization of social relations, stemming from participatory media, leads to renegotiating a number of democratic balances. These include the relationship between private and public spheres as well as the role of publics in constituting collective dynamics, such as the formation of public problems.



We are proposing a panel on “Participatory Media and Moral Panics” for the Social Media and Society Conference that will be held in Toronto, Canada, at the end of July 2015. This panel session serves as a starting point for an edited volume on the same topic. We would like to invite you to submit a proposal by February 26, 2015.

The transformation of the media landscape invites us to rethink the dialectic between “media” and “moral panic”, by focusing on the ways in which participatory media enables the public’s participation in moral panics. Abstracts may relate to any of the following or other areas.

  • Participatory media as a new form of media panic
  • Participatory media in light of the history of media panics
  • Circulation and propagation of moral panic via the use of participatory media by publics
  • Publics’ uses of participatory media to trigger, fuel or maintain moral panics
  • Uses of participatory media in the context of moral panic by the different publics (such as subaltern counter-publics or general public) as a form of activism
  • Effects of participation in online moral panic on media habits
  • Relationship between participation in online moral panic and the formation, evolution or dissolution of social networks and/or social ties
  • Spatiotemporal scales of moral panic: from local issues to global problems or global issues affecting local communities
  • Renewal of the accessibility to fields of moral panic upon the arrival of the Internet
  • New digital methodologies to capture classical objects of moral panic
  • Effects of participatory media on the very concept of moral panic

The field of moral panics is structured around a plurality of models and side developments (Cohen 1972; Spector, Kitsuse 1977; Goode, Ben-Yehuda 1994; Klocke, Muschert 2010, 2013) derived from two distinct terms, that of “deviance” - following the path traced by the work of Stanley Cohen (1972) - and that of “social problem” - along the lines of Herbert Blumer’s pioneering research (1971). If the development of these models is tainted by criticism (e.g. McRobbie, Thornton 1995; Ungar 2001; Cornwell, Linders 2002; Young 2004), a strong consensus remains regarding the role played by media in producing moral panics. Without being the sole mediator at work, media are at the very least a secondary actor broadcasting information (Goode, Ben-Yehuda 1994), amplifying and providing visibility to social phenomenon and/or groups of people (Cohen 1972).

Although the various models stemming from the moral panic concept have constantly taken the media as their analytical pivot, this field of research has dealt very little with the changing technological landscape (Klocke, Muschert 2013), even though this latest development may potentially challenge the way moral panics have been considered until now. With the diversification of communication devices (e-mail, text message, chat, video-conference, etc.), the media landscape has become more complex in recent years. The ever-growing process of mediatized social relationships is notably linked to the development of “participatory” media (Jenkins 2006; Deuze 2006; Livingstone 2013), that is to say media by the means of which users not only consume but also produce and broadcast cultural content. Therefore, publics can just as well trigger but also fuel, spread and maintain moral panic, via the communication devices of the web 2.0 type (Paton, Figeac 2015). It may even be a key factor in the ways in which moral panic forms and spreads from the local to the international level (and vice versa) via communication technologies and the use of digital networks. And while moral panics are “trans-media”, present in both “traditional” media and digital media (Frau-Meigs 2012), the proliferation of “mediascapes” (Appadurai 1990) gives access to a greater amount of media arenas within the public sphere. The transformation of the media landscape therefore invites us to rethink the dialectic between "media" and "moral panic", notably by focusing on the ways in which participatory media enable the public’s participation in moral panics.

This call for abstracts suggests the following directions in which such a field of enquiry can be pursued; yet we are open to additional suggestions.

1. Participatory media in light of the history of media panics

The concepts of moral panic and media share a longstanding complicity despite a particular medium. Comic strips, video games, the Internet, all these mediums embody fear and distrust of one generation for another at a given time and place (Drotner 1992, 1999; Springhall 1998; Krinsky 2013). The adoption of participatory media is no exception. Controversies between passionate technophiles and just as engaged technophobes regularly shape public debates about the risks of adopting new media, or the implications of these practices on social ties and the upholding of social order, particularly with regard to some threats, such as the contagion of violence through the use of the web in connection with terrorist networks, the increase of incidences of cyberbullying, or access to pornography or more particularly networks of pedophiles (e.g. Boyd 2012; Molloy 2013). The object of this first part of the book is to investigate recent media panics in relationship to participatory media in order to identify and question their specificity, or/and the ways in which these latest episodes of debate coincide and extend the history of media panics surrounding other mediums in the past. This retrospective also constitutes an opportunity to provide more information about the social conditions that create, maintain and result in a successful episode of moral panic.

The object of this first axis could be empirical or theoretical enquiries responding to questions such as:

  • What recent media panics have participatory media given way to? What are their specificities?
  • How can these media panics foreshadow contemporary relationships to participatory media? Do these latest episodes of debate coincide and extend the history of media panics surrounding other mediums in the past?
  • This retrospective also constitutes an opportunity to provide more information about the social conditions that create, maintain and result in a successful episode of moral panic.

2. Rethinking the publics’ role and types of participation

Key figures of the 19th century who first evoked “moral panics” assimilated the public to an entity, a partly irrational faceless and nameless crowd, empowered by collective strength. They insisted upon the fact relational dynamics between individuals fundamentally changes when agglomerated into a huge crowd. While publics were then at the center of analysis in an attempt to characterize the clustering of individuals, nowadays, they are often relegated to secondary roles. Even more so considering the publics that have a place in the literature are those of a political nature, as civil society actors (e.g. moral entrepreneurs, claim-makers, social movements or more commonly NGOs, private companies, political parties, etc.). Yet it is precisely this anonymous mass, the agglomeration of individuals, the crowd of people, that makes the fabric of moral panics and embodies the strength of this collective entity, and in turn the potency of the concept of moral panic.

This second axis calls for proposals rethinking this sector of literature and opening the black box of publics within the realm of moral panic.

To do so, a starting point could be to consider the place of publics in the history of moral panics

  • What are the diverse formats of publics’ participation developed throughout the years according to the different authors within the field?
  • How can contemporary technological devices overcome past difficulties in studying moral panic?

3. Publics’ media participation: use of participatory media by the public to contribute to moral panics

Research focusing on publics and subaltern counter-publics (Fraser 2005) help evaluate the changes introduced by the participatory media. Publics now have the opportunity to use the Internet to produce, disseminate and receive information, regardless of legitimate institutions such as news outlets, in addition to having the possibility of communicating beyond their immediate circles through digital social networks (Fuchs 2013). These evolutions of the borders of the public sphere renews the manners in which identification, ownership and protest of definitions of public problems can be rendered, on a scale that exceeds interpersonal relationships (Klocke, Muschert 2013) and lets dissonant voices enter public debates (Ungar 2001). If publicizing opinions do not go hand in hand with their visibility to wide audiences (Boyd 2008), the proliferation of Internet-related media arenas, however, increases the resources available to citizens to disseminate their opinions, and thereby, to try to influence the definition of social problems that are at the center of public debates. This possibility represents a major change with respect to the legitimation or, conversely, the challenge of social order.

This third axis could call for proposals of such nature:

  • How can the coproduction of moral panic, via media participation, be finely analyzed to document how individuals, through their relational links, maintain and propagate moral panic?
  • How does this media participation interfere with the definition of social problems?
  • Do “new media systems and forms (‘mediascapes’) and modern social movements [which take advantage of this new setting] obstruct the efforts of conventional media or pressure groups to create folk devils” as Critcher puts it (2008)?
  • Given that voicing opinions in the public debate is insufficient to co-produce perception of the problem at stake and public policies that follow, does the broadening of the sphere public lead to increasing counter-opinions and/or a new era in which these counter-opinions are taken into account more? If so, how do they interplay in the production of moral panics, and ultimately in the construction of public problems?
  • How does the use of ICT renew forms of regulation?
  • Does the public now have new resources and expertise to define the object of the panic via their media contributions?

4. Effects of moral panics on social networks

The increased mediatization of social relations has contributed to the transformation of ways to weave and maintain social relationships (Wellman 2001). New technical devices and the widespread use of the Internet can thus be conceived as a vector playing an active role in the evolution of relational structures. The Internet and the access to public expression that it allows can be grasped as a means to facilitate the formation of social groups united around a common area of interest. The emergence of very large social networks on the Internet can hypothetically power collective dynamics, such as social movements, which may forge the contours of public problems. By providing new media arenas and forums for expression, the Internet also facilitates the constitution of counter-hegemonic, subversive and oppositional social movements (Paton 2015). In this respect, sociotechnical innovations bring along their share of political issues. However, more than generating new social ties, participatory media are primarily communication tools allowing one to maintain a network of relationships and develop communication with one’s contacts (Ito et al. 2008). This change in the organization of social relations is linked to the way individuals have in recent years been actively taking part in “social network sites” (SNS) such as Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, that promote dialogue within and between networks of relationships.

This axis encourages better knowledge of the ICT-social networks dialectic to explore the effect of online participation in moral panic on relational structures at an individual and collective level, by considering in particular the inclusion of the private sphere in political debates online.

Potential areas of interest of this fourth axis could be:

  • What are the effects of participation in moral panic on both civic associations (i.e. relational dynamics between ordinary citizens) and its effects on personal social networks? Does participation lead to the creation of new social ties, or the severance of existing relationships? Are they strengthened or tested? Which relationships are concerned?
  • What influence do acquaintances have online/offline in terms of engagement in a collective movement (e.g. demonstrating with close relations with whom we have discussed this social issue and (re) made contact via a digital social network)?
  • How do these forms of media participation affect those stigmatized by a controversial subject?

5.  Spatiotemporal scales of moral panic in regards to the circulation of content, objects and people

The moral panics scales could also be adjusted. Moral panics do not emerge unscathed from the convergence of media: they are no longer confined to a local or even a national sphere; some moral panics affect distant territories from where they originated and mutate into a transnational phenomena (see Critcher). To complicate matters, the multiplication of mediascapes densifies the sites from which moral panics can emerge and/or be sustained. In a similar manner to these spatial issues, moral panics are not restraint to a tight temporality, which would imply linear phenomena with a beginning and an easily identifiable end (Thomson 1998). They have a "heritage" quality to them (Critcher 2003): media discourse circulates throughout the layers of society and feed the repertoire of collective action long after the initial departing point. Moral panics have long-term effects with possible ties to other social problems. In regards to these different considerations, moral panics should be put into perspective with flows of global mobility. Additional emphasis should highlight the ways in which media content overflows boundaries and redefines spatiotemporal scales (Frau-Meigs 2010).

  • How should (or has) public debates that accompany moral panics in the era of the globalization of social processes be(en) studied?
  • How should the different levels of the production of panics be understood when they are likely to spread from a local dimension, to a national or international one, and vice versa, and thus feed on spatially distant contributions, but also spread beyond specific sites?
  • In short, how to account for the mobility of moral panics, whether spatial and/or temporal, be accounted for, notably on a methodological level?
  • How can the multiplication of sites of production of moral panics be understood, through mediascapes that can have different legitimacy?

6. Renewal of the accessibility to fields and the methodologies to capture classical objects of moral panic

The development of methodological tools and the renewed access to the fields of enquiry in relationship to the advent participatory media deserve to be examined. These transformations of the methodological landscape are enhanced by new possibilities to capture the expression of moral panics.

The media, in addition to the fact that they are objects of analysis regarding their mediation, are also an excellent methodological tool in that they allow one to observe otherwise inaccessible fields of social sciences. For example, it is now possible to follow how the public receive, share, spread opinions, just as it is possible to question people’s fears, objections, and claims concerning a moral dilemma on very large scales. This access to public opinion is feasible without conducting face-to-face interviews or using secondary sources such as news outlets. The accumulation of traces from users’ Internet activities constitutes a platform to observe the content produced, and the interactions thus engaged. This renewed access to fields of enquiry could be, for example, an opportunity to better understand how moral panics affect the public and lead them to change their media practices and the signs they arbor to signify their identity (Casilli et al. 2012; Paton 2015).

Also, recent methodological contributions related to new techniques of data collection (e.g. data mining, topic detection and tracking, etc.) in the areas such as Digital Humanities invites one to revisit moral panic theories as they provide new opportunities of research. These innovations may shed a different light on previous approaches to moral panics.

This axis invites proposals that either illustrate access to old objects of moral panic in a new manner.

7. Towards the consolidation and extension of the notion of moral panic?

Regarding the diverse sociotechnical evolutions discussed up until now, the notion of moral panic could be in need of improvement, with respect to the dialectic “participatory media” – “moral panic”, to consolidate media’s role, extend the scope of media implied by the term and highlight publics’ role via media participation.

  • How can this notion now be understood after the media landscape has been affected by such in-depth transformations?
  • At the same time, what are the limits of the “participation” notion?
  • If there are more contributors involved in public debates, given facilitated access to the public sphere, does the multiplication of these voices impact the notion of moral panics?
  • How does participatory media change formats of participation?
  • How can we develop transmedia analysis/theoretical models of moral panics that take into account all the different mediums (TV, web 2.0, Smartphones, etc.)?

This panel creates an opportunity for colleagues to present their papers, to meet face to face and to examine our common theme in an interactive environment. The aim is to promote lively dialogue among experts and to offer a venue for a fruitful and satisfying discussion on how we theorize moral panics and participatory media.

Guidelines submission

The deadline to propose a panel at the conference is March 2nd 2015.

Therefore, if you would like to participate in the Social Media and Society Conference, please send us the details of the authors/participants and a brief abstract of 150-200 words

by February 26 at the latest,

knowing that at this level Glenn W. Muschert and I will act a scientific committee. Please simultaneously e-mail Glenn Muschert at muschegw@MiamiOH.edu and Nathalie Paton at nathalie.paton@gmail.com. You will be informed shortly after if your abstract has been selected as part of the panel proposal. Ultimately, the scientific committee of the conference, composed of Anatoliy Gruzd, Barry Wellman, Philip H. Mai and Jenna Jacobson, accept or reject the panel proposal and all selected candidates will of course be informed of this decision asap.

We feel important to point out that contribution to the Social Media and Society Conference panel does not imply, nor is contingent upon, final acceptance of a paper for the proposed volume on participatory media and moral panic. While the Social Media and Society Conference panel and the planned volume may complement one another, they are nonetheless separate projects. Acceptance for publication in the edited volume will require successful peer and editorial review prior to publication. We mention this simply to avoid potential confusion.

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or concerns. Also, please feel welcome to post this call for abstracts widely and to forward it to interested colleagues and students.


  • Toronto, Canada


  • Thursday, February 26, 2015


  • participatory media, moral panic, Internet, ICT, moral regulation, contagion, social network, participation médiatique, panique morale, régulation, réseau social


  • Nathalie Paton
    courriel : nathalie [dot] paton [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Glenn Muschert
    courriel : muschegw [at] MiamiOH [dot] edu

Information source

  • Nathalie Paton
    courriel : nathalie [dot] paton [at] gmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Participatory Media and Moral Panic », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, February 12, 2015, https://calenda.org/317291

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