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Preparing to burn a witch in 1544. Witch-hunts are an example of mass behavior fueled by moral panic.
A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.A Dictionary of Sociology defines a moral panic as "the process of arousing social concern over an issue - usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media".
Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964. According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), a moral panic occurs when "...[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests". Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as 'moral entrepreneurs', while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as 'folk devils'.
British vs. American
Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic as described by American versus British sociologists. In addition to pointing out other sociologists who note the distinction, Kenneth Thompson has characterized the difference as American sociologists tending to emphasize psychological factors while the British portray "moral panics" as crises of capitalism.
British criminologist Jock Young used the term in his participant observation study of drug taking in Porthmadog between 1967 and 1969. In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the public reaction to the phenomenon of mugging and the perception that it had recently been imported from American culture into the UK. Employing Cohen's definition of 'moral panic', Hall et al. theorized that the "...rising crime rate equation..." performs an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes; moral panics could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "...police the crisis".
Cohen's stages of moral panic
According to Stanley Cohen, who seems to have borrowed the term from Marshall McLuhan (see above), there are five key stages in the construction of a moral panic:
Someone, something or a group are defined as a threat to social norms or community interests
The threat is then depicted in a simple and recognizable symbol/form by the media
The portrayal of this symbol rouses public concern
There is a response from authorities and policy makers
The moral panic over the issue results in social changes within the community
In 1971 Stanley Cohen investigated a series of "moral panics". Cohen used the term "moral panic" to characterize the reactions of the media, the public, and agents of social control to youth disturbances. This work, involving the Mods and Rockers, demonstrated how agents of social control amplified deviance. According to Cohen, these groups were labeled as being outside the central core values of consensual society and as posing a threat to both the values of society and society itself, hence the term "folk devils".
In a more recent edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen outlines some of the criticisms that have arisen in response to moral panic theory. One of these is of the term "panic" itself, as it has connotations of irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintains that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor.
According to Stanley Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the concept of "moral panic" was linked to certain assumptions about the mass media. Stanley Cohen showed that the mass media are the primary source of the public's knowledge about deviance and social problems. He further argued that moral panic gives rise to the folk devil by labeling actions and people.
According to Cohen, the media appear in any or all three roles in moral panic dramas:
Setting the agenda - selecting deviant or socially problematic events deemed as newsworthy, then using finer filters to select which events are candidates for moral panic.
Transmitting the images - transmitting the claims by using the rhetoric of moral panics.
Breaking the silence and making the claim.
Moral panics have several distinct features. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:
Concern - There must be the belief that the behaviour of the group or activity deemed deviant is likely to have a negative effect on society.
Hostility - Hostility toward the group in question increases, and they become "folk devils". A clear division forms between "them" and "us".
Consensus - Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the "moral entrepreneurs" are vocal and the "folk devils" appear weak and disorganized.
Disproportionality - The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
Volatility - Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared because public interest wanes or news reports change to another narrative.
Writing about the Blue Whale game and the Momo Challenge as examples of moral panics, Benjamin Radford lists some of the themes he commonly sees in the modern versions of these phenomena:
The fear of disease (or fear of threats to public health) and spread of panic dates back many centuries and continues into the 21st century with diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, H1N1, Zika, and SARS. Cohen's idea of the "folk devil" and epidemics can be compared because of their role in spreading mass panic and fear. The intense concentration on hygiene emerged, before the 20th century, with a medical belief referred to as miasma theory, which states that disease was the direct result of the polluting emanations of filth: sewer gas, garbage fumes, and stenches that polluted air and water, which results in an epidemic. The Great Stink of 1858 was blamed on miasma, along with reoccurring cholera epidemics during the Victorian era. Although the water was safe to drink in most parts of London, such a panic had arisen that very few people would dare drink the water.
In early-1960s Britain, the two main youth subcultures were mods and rockers. The "mods and rockers" conflict was explored as an instance of moral panic by sociologist Stanley Cohen in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which examined media coverage of the mod and rocker riots in the 1960s. Although Cohen acknowledges that mods and rockers had some fights in the mid-1960s, he argues that they were no different from the evening brawls that occurred between non-mod and non-rocker youths throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, both at seaside resorts and after football games.
Newspapers of the time were eager to describe the mod and rocker clashes as being of "disastrous proportions", and labelled mods and rockers as "sawdust Caesars", "vermin" and "louts". Newspaper editorials fanned the flames of hysteria, such as a Birmingham Post editorial in May 1964 which warned that mods and rockers were "internal enemies" in the United Kingdom who would "bring about disintegration of a nation's character". The magazine Police Review argued that the mods and rockers' purported lack of respect for law and order could cause violence to "surge and flame like a forest fire". As a result of this media coverage, two British Members of Parliament travelled to the seaside areas to survey the damage, and MP Harold Gurden called for a resolution for intensified measures to control youth hooliganism. One of the prosecutors in the trial of some of the Clacton brawlers argued that mods and rockers were youths with no serious views, who lacked respect for law and order.
1970s-present: increase in crime
Research shows that fear of increasing crime is often the cause of moral panics. Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a population's "herd mentality", continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai explains how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s caused people to believe that the crime rate was rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.
1970s-present: video games and violence
There have been calls to regulate violence in video games for nearly as long as the video game industry has existed, with Death Race a notable early example. In the 1990s, however, improvements in video game technology allowed for more lifelike depictions of violence in games like Mortal Kombat and Doom. The industry attracted controversy over violent content and concerns about effects they might have on players, generating frequent media stories drawing connections between video games and violent behavior as well as a number of academic studies reporting conflicting findings about the strength of correlations. According to Christopher Ferguson, sensationalist media reports and the scientific community unintentionally worked together in "promoting an unreasonable fear of violent video games". Concerns from parts of the public about violent games led to cautionary, often exaggerated news stories, warnings from politicians and other public figures, and calls for research to prove the connection, which in turn led to studies "speaking beyond the available data and allowing the promulgation of extreme claims without the usual scientific caution and skepticism."
Since the 1990s, there have been attempts to regulate violent video games in the United States through congressional bills as well as within the industry. Public concern and media coverage of violent video games reached a high point following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, after which videos were found of the perpetrators talking about violent games like Doom and making comparisons between the acts they intended to carry out and aspects of games.
Ferguson and others have explained the video game moral panic as part of a cycle that all new media go through. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legally restricting sales of video games to minors would be unconstitutional and called the research presented in favor of regulation "unpersuasive".
Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the war on drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 1990s, involving media's gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs. News media have been criticized for advocating "grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998," for overstating the threat and for excessively dwelling on the topic. For example, a 2009 Australian study found that drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked.
Also known as the "satanic panic", this was a series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse that originated in the United States and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and led to a string of wrongful convictions.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) may lead to or exacerbate other health conditions such as pneumonia, fungal infections, tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, and cytomegalovirus. A meeting of the British Sociological Association's South West and Wales Study entitled "AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic" was prompted by the growing interest of medical sociologists in AIDS, as well as that of UK health care professionals working in the field of health education. It took place at a time when both groups were beginning to voice an increased concern with the growing media attention and fear-mongering that AIDS was attracting. In the 1980s, a moral panic was created within the media over HIV/AIDS. In Britain the notable iceberg advert by the government clearly hinted that the public was uninformed about HIV/AIDS due to a lack of publicly assessable and accurate information.
The media outlets nicknamed HIV/AIDS the "gay plague", causing further stigmatization and misunderstandings about the disease. However, scientists gained a far better understanding of HIV/AIDS as it grew in the 1980s and moved into the 1990s and beyond. The illness was still negatively viewed by many as either caused by, or passed on through, the gay community. Once it became clear that this wasn't the case, the moral panic created by the media changed to blaming the overall negligence of ethical standards of the younger generation (both male and female), resulting in another moral panic. It is prevalent in the media[clarification needed] and the way HIV/AIDS is depicted taken from this extract, "British TV and press coverage is locked into an agenda which blocks out any approach to the subject which does not conform in advance to the values and language of a profoundly homophobic culture-a culture that is which does not regard gay men as fully or properly human. No distinction obtains for the agenda between 'quality' and 'tabloid' newspapers, or between 'popular' and 'serious' television."
In the 1990s, blame shifted to "uncivilized Africans" as the new "folk devils", with a popular theory alleging that HIV originated from humans having sex with simians. This theory was debunked by numerous experts.
1980s-1990s: Blue star LSD tattoos
The blue star tattoo legend states that a temporary lick-and-stick tattoo soaked in LSD and made in the form of a blue star (the logo of the Dallas Cowboys is often mentioned), or of popular children's cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson, is being distributed to children in the area in order to get them 'addicted to LSD'; even though LSD is rarely addictive. Generally some attribution is given, (typically to a well-regarded hospital or a vaguely specified "advisor to the president"), and instructions are given that parents should contact police if they come across the blue star tattoos. The legend may have arisen from the mistaking of actual LSD blotter paper, which sometimes has cartoon characters or other designs on it, for temporary tattoos.
1990s-present: sex offenders
The media narrative of a sex offender highlighting egregious offenses as typical behavior of any sex offender, and media distorting the facts of some cases, has led legislators to attack judicial discretion, making sex offender registration mandatory based on certain listed offenses rather than individual risk or the actual severity of the crime, thus practically catching less serious offenders under the domain of harsh sex offender laws.
In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the UK and the US related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to such unusual crimes as high-profile cases of child abduction.
2000-present: human trafficking
Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the 'white slavery' panic of a century earlier as prompted passage of the 1910 Mann Act.
In the mid-1990s, jenkem was reported to be a popular street drug among Zambian street children manufactured from fermented human waste. In November 2007, there was a moral panic in the United States after widespread reports of jenkem becoming a popular recreational drug in middle and high schools across the country, though the true extent of the practice has since been called into question. Several sources reported that the increase in American media coverage was based on a hoax and on faulty Internet research.
It has been observed that reliable data and relevant research are generally lacking about chemsex (the consumption of drugs by gay men to facilitate sexual activity) and this situation is generating a climate of moral panic. In a 2015 article published by The Guardian, it has been argued that an exaggerated reporting might give the public a distorted impression of the magnitude of this phenomenon - and that can only increase the level of collective anxiety.
In mid-2018, reports began emerging of a supposed "suicide challenge" dubbed the Momo Challenge, where people would be threatened into carrying out dangerous or even life threatening tasks by users with avatars depicting a frightening face - in reality, an image of a sculpture produced by a Japanese artist in 2016 - then being pressured to do these tasks with images of gore and violence if they didn't obey. While reports of the challenge directly resulting in injury or suicide are unsubstantiated, media outlets in several countries began perpetuating rumours that children had injured themselves or even committed suicide following the challenge, although most evidence has revealed that no such incidents have taken place.
Paul Joosse (2017) has argued that while classic moral panic theory styled itself as being part of the 'sceptical revolution' that sought to critique structural functionalism, it is actually very similar to Durkheim's depiction of how the collective conscience is strengthened through its reactions to deviance (in Cohen's case, for example, 'right-thinkers' use folk devils to strengthen societal orthodoxies). In his analysis of Donald Trump's 2016 electoral victory, Joosse reimagines moral panic in Weberian terms, showing how charismatic moral entrepreneurs can at once deride folk devils in the traditional sense while avoiding the conservative moral recapitulation that classic moral panic theory predicts.
Another criticism is that of disproportionality. The problem with this argument is that there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action.:xxvi-xxxi Jarrett Thibodeaux (2014) further argues that the criteria of disproportionality erroneously assumes that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm. The idea that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm, but is a moral panic when it does not, is a 'constructionism of the gaps' line of explanation.
Writing in 1995 about the moral panic that arose in the UK after a series of murders by juveniles, chiefly that of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys but also including that of 70-year-old Edna Phillips by two 17-year-old girls, the sociologist Colin Hay pointed out that the folk devil was ambiguous in such cases; the child perpetrators would normally be thought of as innocent.
In "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton argue "that it is now time that every stage in the process of constructing a moral panic, as well as the social relations which support it, should be revised." Their argument is that mass media has changed since the concept of moral panic emerged so "that 'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were", and that 'folk devils' are not only castigated by mass media but supported and defended by it as well. They also suggest that the "points of social control" that moral panics used to rest on "have undergone some degree of shift, if not transformation."
The British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality', how it is accepted unproblematically in the concept of 'moral panic' and how most research into moral panics fails to approach the term critically but instead accepts it at face value. Jewkes goes on to argue that the thesis and the way it has been used fails to distinguish between crimes that quite rightly offend human morality, and thus elicit a justifiable reaction, and those that demonise minorities. The public are not sufficiently gullible to keep accepting the latter and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media and the government.
Another British criminologist, Steve Hall, goes a step further to suggest that the term 'moral panic' is a fundamental category error. Hall argues that although some crimes are sensationalized by the media, in the general structure of the crime/control narrative the ability of the existing state and criminal justice system to protect the public is also overstated. Public concern is whipped up only for the purpose of being soothed, which produces not panic but the opposite, comfort and complacency.
Echoing another point Hall makes, the sociologists Thompson and Williams argue that the concept of 'moral panic' is not a rational response to the phenomenon of social reaction, but itself a product of the irrational middle-class fear of the imagined working-class 'mob'. Using as an example a peaceful and lawful protest staged by local mothers against the re-housing of sex-offenders on their estate, Thompson and Williams show how the sensationalist demonization of the protesters by moral panic theorists and the liberal press was just as irrational as the demonization of the sex offenders by the protesters and the tabloid press.
Many sociologists and criminologists (Ungar, Hier, Rohloff) have revised Cohen's original framework. The revisions are compatible with the way in which Cohen theorizes panics in the third Introduction to Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
The term was used in 1830, in a way that completely differs from its modern social science application, by a religious magazine regarding a sermon.:250 The phrase was used again in 1831, with an intent that is possibly closer to its modern use.
^Hayes, Hennessey; Prenzler, Tim (2012). Introduction to Crime and Criminology. Frenchs Forest, New South Wales: Pearson Australia. ISBN9781442545243.
^Thompson, Kenneth (2006) . "The History and Meaning of the Concept". In Critcher, Chas. Critical Readings: Moral Panics and the Media. Maidenhead England New York: Open University Press. pp. 60-66. ISBN9780335218073.
^Levine, Bernard R., The Switchblade Menace, OKCA Newsletter (1993): Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D) of Illinois was convinced of a sadistic connection, proclaiming that "vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry...barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of accepted values spring from [switchblades] ... Minus switchblade knives and the distorted feeling of power they beget--power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence--our delinquent adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime".
^ abcCohen, Stanley (2002). Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the Mods and Rockers. London New York: Routledge. ISBN9780415267120.
^British Film Commission (BFC) (PDF), Film Education.
^Cohen, Stanley (2002). Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the Mods and Rockers. London New York: Routledge. ISBN9780415267120. p. 27
^ abcdeFerguson, Christopher J. (2013). "Violent video games and the Supreme Court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association". American Psychologist. 68 (2): 57-74. doi:10.1037/a0030597. PMID23421606.
^Ferguson, Christopher J.; Coulson, Mark; Barnett, Jane (2011). "A meta-analysis of pathological gaming prevalence and comorbidity with mental health, academic and social problems". Journal of Psychiatric Research. 45 (12): 1573-8. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2011.09.005. PMID21925683.
^Jenkins, Philip (1999). Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs. New York, New York: New York University Press. pp. 20 and 161-182. ISBN9780814742440.
^Webber, Craig (2010). Psychology & Crime. Los Angeles & London: Sage. p. 67. ISBN9781412919425.
^Quigley, Paul; Lynch, Dania M.; Little, Mark; Murray, Lindsay; Lynch, Ann-Maree; O'Halloran, Sean J. (2009). "Prospective study of 101 patients with suspected drink spiking". Emergency Medicine Australasia. 21 (3): 222-8. doi:10.1111/j.1742-6723.2009.01185.x. PMID19527282.
^Waldron, David (2005). "Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic". The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. 9: 3. doi:10.3138/jrpc.9.1.003.
^ abJenkins, Philip (1998). Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 207-231. ISBN9780300109634.
^ abFox, Kathryn J. (2012). "Incurable Sex Offenders, Lousy Judges & the Media: Moral Panic Sustenance in the Age of New Media". American Journal of Criminal Justice. 38: 160-181. doi:10.1007/s12103-012-9154-6.
^Doezema, Jo (1999). "Loose women or lost women? The re-emergence of the myth of white slavery in contemporary discourses of trafficking in women". Gender Issues. 18 (1): 23-50. doi:10.1007/s12147-999-0021-9. PMID12296110.
^Weitzer, R. (2007). "The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade". Politics & Society. 35 (3): 447-75. doi:10.1177/0032329207304319.
^Cunneen, Chris; Salter, Michael (2009). "Women's bodies, moral panic and the world game: Sex trafficking, the 2006 Football World Cup and beyond". Proceedings of the Second Australia and New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference. pp. 222-42. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1333994. ISBN978-0-646-50737-8.
^Milivojevic, Sanja; Pickering, Sharon (2008). "Football and sex: The 2006 FIFA World Cup and sex trafficking". Temida. 11 (2): 21-47. doi:10.2298/TEM0802021M.
^"Dr. Cox on regeneration". Millennial Harbinger. 1: 546-550. 1830. OCLC1695161.Preview. Cox asserted that regeneration of the soul should be an active process, and stated: "...if it be a fact that the soul is just as active in regeneration as in any other thing ... then, what shall we call that kind of orthodoxy that proposes to make men better by teaching them the reverse? To paralyze the soul, or to strike it through with a moral panic is not regeneration." (page 546) and "After quoting such scriptures as these, "Seek and you shall find," "Come unto me, and I will give you rest," they ask, ...is it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or "moral panic? (page 548)
^The Journal of Health Conducted by an Association of Physicians (1831) p. 180 "Magendie, a French physician of note on his visit to Sunderland, where the Cholera was by the last accounts still raging, praises the English government for not surrounding the town with a cordon of troops, which as "a physical preventive would have been ineffectual and would have produced a moral panic far more fatal than the disease now is."
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Also available as: McRobbie, Angela; Thornton, Sarah L. (1995). "Rethinking 'Moral Panic' for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds". The British Journal of Sociology. 46 (4): 559. doi:10.2307/591571. JSTOR591571.
Monod, Sarah Wright ed. Making Sense of Moral Panics: A Framework for Research (Palgrave Studies in Risk, Crime and Society, 2017)
Pearce, J. M.; Charman, E. (2011). "A social psychological approach to understanding moral panic". Crime, Media, Culture. 7 (3): 293. doi:10.1177/1741659011417607.
Rodwell, Grant (2011). "One newspaper's role in the demise of the Tasmanian Essential Learnings Curriculum: Adding new understandings to Cohen's moral panic theory in analyzing curriculum change". Journal of Educational Change. 12 (4): 441-456. doi:10.1007/s10833-011-9163-0.
Ungar, Sheldon (2001). "Moral panic versus the risk society: The implications of the changing sites of social anxiety". British Journal of Sociology. 52 (2): 271-91. doi:10.1080/00071310120044980. PMID11440057.
Victor, Jeffrey S. (1998). "Moral Panics and the Social Construction of Deviant Behavior: A Theory and Application to the Case of Ritual Child Abuse". Sociological Perspectives. 41 (3): 541-565. doi:10.2307/1389563. JSTOR1389563.
Waiton, Stuart (2008). The politics of antisocial behaviour: amoral panics. New York: Routledge. ISBN9780415957052.
Woodiwiss, Michael; Hobbs, Dick (2009). "Organized Evil and the Atlantic Alliance: Moral Panics and the Rhetoric of Organized Crime Policing in America and Britain". British Journal of Criminology. 49 (1): 106-28. doi:10.1093/bjc/azn054. JSTOR23639658. SSRN1315134.