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Moral Panics, Conspiracy Theories and Confusion: The Nation of Misinformation

We live in a world where the answers to all our most profound queries are at our fingertips. The internet has made it possible to access more knowledge, but to what extent is everything that we know ‘pure’ truth? And how do twisted truths infiltrate our collective consciousness?

Through the ages, the deepest human fears have manifested into moral panics and conspiracy theories. This ubiquitous worry has had real-world effects, impacting government policy, public opinion and historiography. Our understanding of history and fact has been shaped and even tainted by subjectivity and hidden bias, and the persistence of moral panics in our society has shown this. Almost all of the time, moral panics displace any acknowledgement of real social issues, giving way to majestic, exotic and frequently fictitious fears; instead of offering any solutions to valid, current social problems, moral panics incite reactionary policies that often work to disenfranchise and stigmatise certain members of the population and certain subcultures. Facts and research are discarded, instead, we are only left with a sense of public anxiety and animosity.

One example of a moral panic that has permeated common thought is the stigma of videogames and violence. Following the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in the US, there was a hyperawareness of teenage violence correlating with violent video games. Both of the shooters at Columbine actively played the game ‘Doom’ as well as others, and there was such a visceral shock in the public’s reaction to the tragic events being carried out by sheltered, suburban youths. How could children kill their classmates? The conclusion was made that the games must have caused the teenagers to shoot in their school. With the subsequent rise in school shootings after Columbine, this theory has become set in stone. It has even overridden the actual research which has stated that there is an “extremely small observed relationship in longitudinal studies between violent games and youth aggression.” [1] 

Moral panics like this one for instance cause real people and real events to become distorted and sensationalised on morning talk shows and news broadcast through all types of media, and it brews public dissent. A combination of assumptions, bias, fears and othering exaggerate a single issue to be larger and more alarming than it is in reality. Child trafficking, for one, is an issue that has increasingly seeped into our consciousness and is a serious and horrifying problem. But once it is a moral panic, fiction is prioritised over facts. Overstating references to highly organised syndicates, trafficking rings, airport abductions – while they may be happening- misrepresents the problem for what it is. Statistics have been inflated when it comes to things like child trafficking – the system of tallying the data and defining who is a trafficking victim is flawed, resulting in numbers that are not representative of reality. According to The Washington Post, there are not “over 68,000” victims being trafficked every day, as Airline Ambassadors International claims. This is a huge error in interpreting statistics. This specific statistic (over 68,000 a day) is taken from the International Labour Organisation’s estimated number of people identified as being ‘engaged in forced labour’ which is 24.9 million people, and then that number is divided by 365 days in a year, equalling to 68,000 a day [2]. So, not only is the data misrepresentative of children being trafficked every day- it is not even referring to trafficking, but forced labour, which is a whole other problem. With data like this, there is also a big discrepancy in the reports of trafficking to the number produced – children who have run from home can be counted as trafficking victims, abused children counted as trafficked, missing children counted. These discrepancies in the data and reporting of trafficking kick up the storm of misinformation and this data are spread around the internet. Again, it’s not that this is a non-issue – children are abused in many ways- but these numbers don’t represent reality on a population level.

This is not to say issues like violent video games, child trafficking, gangs, murder, teenage pregnancy, homelessness and more are not valid or worthy of concern and attention. Dismissing them as untrue is insensitive, to be frank. However, the internet and media have a considerable amount of power in amplifying, decontextualising and overemphasising them, so much so that the reality of these problems is swapped for simply a good story. Therefore, having a sudden preoccupation with issues that aren’t issued according to research, serves as a distraction from what we do know and what we can change. Hyper focusing on inflated child trafficking statistics does nothing to help children in abusive households or children who rely on school meals to eat every day. Zeroing in on video games as a cause for violence doesn’t take into account mental illness as a factor or the easy accessibility of guns in America to young people. Replacing real problems with a fearsome proxy or threatening bogeyman only confuses our knowledge of what is going on in the world even more.

In addition to moral panics, various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are ripe areas for propagating conspiracy theories and misinformation. There is a growing distrust of “mainstream media” – a suspiciousness towards news corporations and their vested interests. The mainstream media is being perceived as underreporting globally significant issues and promoting certain agendas, so internet users turn to social media for news updates. But this is somewhat of a naïve notion – if the news companies have agendas of their own, what’s stopping clickbaity, elusive online news sources from having their ulterior motives? We’ve come out of the pan and into the fire; with mainstream media, there is some type of regulation and filtering of misinformation (however biased it may be), but with the online news source, it’s a no hold barred battleground of pictures, statistics and words. What is true and what is exaggerated? Can we trust the numbers we see? False information is allowed to permeate on the internet, under the guise of accuracy and objectivity – how many people have you seen pointing to a Facebook post vehemently claiming that they are seeing the hidden truth that the evil media callously refuses to report? How many people do you know get their news from the internet and social media sites, so sure that they know what no one else does? This is not limited to QAnon and the outlandish flat earther community, it is closer to you than you think it is.

So, while it is a boon to have all this information in our hands, it is absolutely easy to come across all types of misinformation – from a simple meme, viral Twitter post or YouTube video, to fake videos of politicians and celebrities. It’s vicious and deceptive, it takes advantage of human empathy and also exposes prejudices and fears against certain populations, and it legitimises these prejudices. Research has shown that once you see something enough times you are inclined to believe it, no matter if it’s untrue. It’s called the ‘illusory truth effect’. So, according to this phenomenon, I may just be screaming into the void right now.

Sources: 

[1] ‘Do longitudinal studies support long-term relationships between aggressive game play and youth aggressive behaviour? A meta-analytic examination’ https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.200373 

[2] ‘Are 68,000 people a day ‘trafficked right in front of our eyes’? Nope.’ https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/10/11/are-people-day-traffi…

 

I'm Sara, a second year English student. I'm a lover of jaffa cakes, pop culture/history documentaries, and my two cats who are my best friends!
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