I’m grateful that Will Rinehart has taken pains to respond not only conversationally to our reactions to his initial essay but also with a more essayistic effort to try to frame the role of social media in a larger theory of democracy. I’m going to respond to all of these efforts here, because I think, even taken together, Will’s three contributions fall short in addressing both (a) the overarching question of whether social media are “broken” and (b) the equally important question of how we should think about social media in the context of our democratic values.
In thinking through my reactions to Will’s three pieces, I’m drawn back to the contributions of my fellow contributors to this colloquy, John Samples and Kate Klonick. John’s response essay is framed in terms of Thomas Emerson’s helpful taxonomy of the functions of freedom of expression, first spelled out here and later explored in his subsequent books. Kate’s response drew upon Nicholas Tampio’s articulation of the value of democracy as well as Jack Balkin’s 2004 law review article arguing that freedom of expression – a bigger set of interests than just talking about politics – needs to be affirmatively protected, not just by the courts, but also by the legislators, administrative agencies, and technology players who increasingly shape the space in which digital speech takes place.
My own initial response also drew upon Emerson and Balkin, though I’ve drawn primarily on later works by both scholars, and I urge readers who may be diverted by Klonick’s and Samples’s discussions of Balkin’s 2004 article to consider how Balkin’s free-speech thinking has evolved since then, starting here. So I was interested to see how Will would respond to what I think all three of his respondents have in common. Specifically, we all addressed the question of how to root our understanding of social media in First Amendment theory and our theory of democracy generally.
I think Will’s lead essay and his responses, taken together, gesture in the direction of a theory of democracy and social media that simultaneously asserts a “thin” assessment of their value while dismissing their real importance. As part of his dismissal of the importance of the democracy/free-expression/social-media nexus, Will makes a number of rhetorical moves, all of which I take to be aimed at marginalizing the larger perspective on social media that, in different ways, John, Kate, and I tried to import into the discussion question of whether social media are “broken.”
I believe that our three initial responses to Will’s lead essay share a resistance to the constrictiveness of Will’s focus on whether “fake news” is a problem that somehow tells us something about social media. Here’s why I think the narrowness of Will’s initial approach and the dismissiveness in his follow-up responses leaves me unsatisfied. Basically, if you read a lot of the recent mainstream opinion writing about social media – not just op-eds but also recent books like Jonathan Taplin’s and Franklin Foer’s – it seems clear that some would-be opinion leaders are trying to gin up a consensus that, yes, social media are “broken” – that there’s something going on with regard to social media that needs to be fixed.
Unsurprisingly, the critics who are advancing this argument are unswayed by research that seems to show that “fake news” may not have had an appreciable effect on the outcome of the 2016 elections. The critics argue that in a presidential election as close as the 2016 election was, even small distortions in voter response, possibly attributable to “fake news,” may have altered the outcome, and that the research that casts doubt on this hypothesis is ambiguous at best. This argument isn’t crazy on its face. I’m skeptical whether “fake news” had such an effect in the last election, but I also think reasonable people can disagree about that, and that reasonable people can reasonably worry whether internet media will help or hurt upcoming elections.
So it seems clear to me that the concern about “fake news” and about other possible negative impacts of social media are going to be with us for a while. We can’t just say “social media didn’t screw up the 2016 election,” dust off our hands, and walk away.
But it’s hard for me to escape the impression that this is what Will has been trying to do. Let me explain my reasoning here.
In my view, Will’s first essay included a couple of theses. First, he seems to argue that American democracy is rooted less in voter access to accurate information (he dismisses this as part of the “folk theory of democracy”) than what might be called (presumably irrational) partisan affiliation:
From the very founding of the United States until the late 1890s, individuals weren’t expected to make rational choices when voting. Not surprisingly, the press was explicitly partisan.
Newfangled reforms like those championed by the Progressive movement, together with the rise of emphasis on journalistic “objectivity,” apparently led to the supplanting of this political tribalism with the “folk theory of democracy,” which is dismissible because it doesn’t give adequate weight to expertise. (Will quotes Michael Schudson here about the “quest for a language of public life that reconciles democracy and expertise.”)
A second thesis in Will’s first essay was that the available research doesn’t support the idea that “2016 was the election of social media” and that, in any case, people mainly use social media for “pointless babble” rather than to inform themselves or to argue politically.
In different ways, John’s, Kate’s, and my responses tried to offer stronger cases in defense of social media than what Will provided. But it seems to me that Will’s initial response and his follow-up essay attempted to dodge those defenses altogether. Instead, Will raised the issue that democracy is “an essentially contested concept.” It seems possible that Will was aiming to characterize the extent to which the responses to his first essay disagreed as one that’s rooted in different notions of democracy, so that if the three response essays differ with his reasoning, it’s because we’re using a different, broader idea (or ideal) of democracy than Will uses.
But taking that approach doesn’t make the case for dismissing these ideas or ideals. It especially doesn’t make the case for dismissing Jack Balkin’s 2004 law review article as “the kind of language game with democracy that [W.B. Gallie] lays out.” To understand Balkin’s article as playing a “language game” at all is to mischaracterize the century of First Amendment scholarship on which Balkin draws, and to which he was responding. Specifically, Balkin’s article expressly addresses what might be called the Alexander Meiklejohn approach to the First Amendment, one in which the importance of freedom of speech is, centrally, its importance to democratic government – to making politics and elections work properly in a democracy. Like many other constitutional lawyers (including yours truly) Balkin is critical of Meiklejohn’s narrow theory of the First Amendment (that it’s primarily about politics).
But even Meiklejohn’s comparatively narrow First Amendment theory, which focuses on informing citizens about political choices, is broader than Will’s. As I read him, Will thinks the notion that an accurately informed voting population is valuable is a kind of populist, “folk” myth. Ironically, Balkin’s push for understanding freedom of expression more broadly in the digital age is as much a challenge to the free-speech-for-good-politics idea as Will’s dismissal of the “folk theory of democracy” is – it’s just coming at it from the other direction. This is the same thing that Thomas Emerson’s theory, which informs John Samples’s response essay, does.
Understanding the importance of free speech broadly, as Balkin’s 2004 article does, is something that, in my view, you also see in John’s, Kate’s, and my initial responses. I think Will recognized, after drafting his first response, that our essays needed a more substantive response than an implicit dismissal, and that this recognition is what has fueled his longer, second essay.
My view is that Will’s first response more or less dodged the arguments that freedom of expression, including how it is exercised in social media, has democratic value much bigger than how it affects or doesn’t affect elections. His longer essay, his third contribution after his lead essay, and initial response attempt to challenge John’s, Kate’s, and my responses more squarely. But in doing so, Will fundamentally mischaracterizes both the implicit and express criticisms as representing what he believes are naïve “emancipatory visions” of the internet. Will attributes one “version of the emancipated world” to Ithiel de Sola Pool, but I think Pool’s magnum opus is properly read as a clear-eyed assessment of where government policy can either enhance freedom (as it has done with the First Amendment and with common carriage) – or undermine freedom (as it has done in broadcasting) rather than serving as a standalone dream of how wonderfully the internet might emancipate us.
I had to wince at that point when I came across the words “emancipatory visions”; I could see where Will was going next. And, sure enough, Will invokes my friend Howard Rheingold’s observation that the early days of internet activism were informed by, inter alia, “granola-eating utopians, the solar-power enthusiasts, serious ecologists and the space-station crowd, immortalists.” And then, inevitably, he quotes my friend and former colleague John Perry Barlow’s “now notorious” Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace.
Here I must share some late-breaking news from the 1990s: the actual cyber-activists of that period (and here I must include myself) did not interpret Barlow’s cri de coeur as political philosophy. Barlow, best known prior to his co-founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a songwriter for the Grateful Dead, was writing to inspire activism, not to prescribe a new world order, and his goal was to be lyrical and aspirational, not legislative. Barlow wrote and published his “Declaration” in the short days and weeks after Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, a telecommunications bill that aimed, in part, to censor the internet. No serious person – and certainly not the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organizations that successfully challenged the Communications Decency Act provisions of that bill – believed that cyberspace would be “automagically” independent of the terrestrial world and its governments. Barlow’s “Declaration” is best understood, as Wired described it two decades later, as a “rallying cry.” Similarly, nobody thinks “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “America the Beautiful” or “This Land Is Your Land” is a constitution. (And of course the original Declaration of Independence isn’t one either.)
I confess that I invoked Barlow’s incantatory rhetoric on a single celebratory occasion. But I did so precisely because I believe a declaration of independence by its very nature should not and cannot be interpreted as a prospective theory of governance. (Compare: “All men are created equal.”) So when I delivered a public speech on the day we celebrated a unanimous Supreme Court victory for the First Amendment in cyberspace, “[n]ow is the time to think about what kind of First Amendment we will shape for ourselves and for those who come after us.” In other words, the hard work of protecting freedom of speech on the internet was still just beginning, and we still had the task before us to figure out how the rule of law would apply there. In any case, just as Barlow’s rallying cry wasn’t political theory, my citing it in a celebratory speech wasn’t either.
As a pragmatic matter – as distinct from the “emancipatory vision” Will dismisses – the very reason we mounted the constitutional challenge to that legislation is precisely because we believed that freedom of expression in cyberspace was utterly dependent on what governments in the physical world might do or attempt to do to in pursuit of silencing troublesome speech.
Will oddly invokes the Free Press as another exemplar of the “emancipatory bent,” quoting a 2008 statement from Free Press’s website that I will quote more fully here:
But whether the Internet remains open, diverse and democratic depends largely on policy decisions. If past is prologue, the prospects aren’t good. Over the past 100 years, whenever a ‘disruptive technology’ – such as radio or television broadcasting – sparked democratic participation in media, dominant forces reacted by creating rules to lock it down, stifle public participation and re-assert their authority.
It is difficult to understand what point about “emancipatory visions” that Will is trying to make, given that he’s quoting Free Press right after quoting Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace. Sure, Barlow can be interpreted by (absurdly) literal readers as saying a bunch of factually untrue things – for example “Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion” – which most adults will understand to be an exercise of Barlow’s poetic license.
But what the Free Press says regarding the disruptive media technologies and the legislative and regulatory responses to them is indisputably, factually true. Media scholars of different political persuasions actually agree that this has been a common governmental reaction to new mass-media platforms. My favorite account of the paroxysms of broadcasting regulation – including the thinness of the theoretical justifications of that regulation – was written by one of my law-school professors, Lucas A. Powe. It seems possible that Will wants to rope in Free Press here as part of his dismissal of “emancipatory visions” because Free Press is openly advocating the net neutrality regulations that Will opposes. But the original “emancipatory vision” of Barlow’s Declaration of Independence was one of denying terrestrial governments’ ability to regulate the internet. Regardless of one’s opinion of net neutrality, it’s quite clear that net-neutrality advocates actually believe terrestrial governments do have jurisdiction and do have power – not, as Barlow lyricizes, that they don’t.
In the circumstances, it seems possible that what Will views as “emancipatory politics” is a simply an optimistic vision that Will doesn’t agree with. And this brings us precisely to Will’s parachuting in the estimable Adam Thierer’s insightful 2010 essay about the oscillations between “technological pessimists” and the technophile “pollyannas.” I love Thierer’s essay not least because he underscores how the techno-pessimist philosopher Neil Postman, citing Plato’s Phaedrus in his 1992 book Technopoly, was “fancying himself a bit of a modern King Thamus.” King Thamus, you may recall, was the king whom Plato depicts as opposing the invention of writing. Of course Neil Postman relied on the invention of writing to compose Technopoly.
Thierer in his essay, and in many other writings and appearances since, has called for “pragmatic optimism,” which Will characterizes as “a sensible middle ground position.” I think so too – and “pragmatic optimism” is pretty much the only approach you can use if you’re a civil libertarian who seeks to defend freedom of speech on the internet and elsewhere. You have to be pragmatic in order to recognize clearly where the challenges to internet freedom and privacy come from, and you have to be optimistic just to get up in the morning to address those challenges – in cases, for example, or in legislation or regulation. And although he counsels pragmatism, Thierer makes no secret of which party he belongs to: “On balance, I believe the optimists generally have the better of the argument today.”
But even the “sensible” notion of pragmatic optimism – an approach that I think has informed my own work on internet law and policy over the last three decades – is too optimistic for Will’s taste. Although, as he writes, “Thierer is right to be optimistic about the possibilities of new technologies,” “[internet-based] technologies are still judged by those emancipatory visions formed at the early stages of technology.”
I confess I have at this last sentence many times tried to figure out what it means, or how Will means to be taken to dissent from Thierer’s pragmatic optimism or from mine. Plus, if “emancipatory visions” are the dominant paradigm in evaluating the internet, how do we explain the flood of writing this year ranging from Al Franken’s last major op-ed as senator to Jonathan Taplin’s anti-tech-giant screed and Franklin Foer’s blaming the loss of his sweet gig at The New Republic on the internet companies’ undermining of “the culture industries”? Indeed, if “emancipatory politics” is somehow today’s dominant paradigm, why are we even discussing here whether social media are “broken”? Why isn’t our consensus reality simply that the internet and social-media platforms are an unalloyed blessing?
I think the answer to this question has to be that many of us recognize a moral panic occurring in our culture (and in other cultures around the world) about the internet and social media. It’s a moral panic that both predates last year’s election and is not particularly rooted in that election. I have begun to write about that moral panic here, and Adam Thierer’s recent review of Foer’s book is titled “Franklin Foer’s Tech-Panic Manifesto.” So if we’re going to talk about whether social media are “broken,” we have to do so in express recognition of the moral panic about social media that’s happening. We have to ground our arguments in theories that speak positively of what social media have given us, not merely dismissively with the notion that this “pointless babble” has probably not done any great harm.
To his credit, Will tries to break some new ground in terms of a positive defense with what he calls “the capabilities approach,” which he characterizes as both an “evaluative framework” that “isn’t a series of answers, but a more formalized series of questions.” The capabilities approach, he says, is one of evaluating “various aspects of individual wellbeing” and, in that light, “a tool to design and evaluate policies.” This is the point where I found myself shaking my head, because the theory that Will is trying to formulate here already exists in First Amendment theory. Specifically, it’s what Thomas Emerson articulates in the scholarly writing that John Samples drew upon for his essay. And it’s what Kate Klonick draws upon when she cites Jack Balkin’s law-review article (which criticized the limitations of the Meiklejohnian politics-centric view of the First Amendment). As both Emerson and Balkin demonstrate, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to harmonizing free-speech theory with individual human needs. Contrary to Will’s suggestion, Balkin does not “appeal to the authority of democracy to say that individuals should have a say in the development of culture.” Instead, he’s saying that participation in the development of culture just is a part of democracy, drawing not least upon the First Amendment theory underpinning our two-decade-old victory in the Supreme Court case Reno v. ACLU (1997) – a case that’s still a triumph, it must be said, of pragmatic optimism.
I can’t help finding myself wishing, after reading and rereading Will’s contributions, to find stronger defenses of democracy, of freedom of expression, and of social media than the ones he offers us. It seems clear that Will doesn’t think much of democracy itself. (He’s right that we need to value “expertise,” but the idea that voters need to be informed and have something to contribute to their governance is something he apparently accepts as a “folk theory of democracy.”) And it seems just as clear that he thinks freedom of expression in social media doesn’t mean much. He feels compelled to elaborate on his earlier declaration that “What people do online is engage in the pointless babble that is so often derided.” In his follow-up essay, Will allows (without expressly admitting) that his generalization may apply only to “most” people. And he clarifies that the “pointless babble” isn’t, strictly speaking, “pointless,” since “these gestures are simply an example of what linguists call ‘phatic communication.’” In other words, social media expression is not totally pointless because it might amount to communications like grunting or nodding to signal your shared presence with someone, or like saying “how’s it going?” as a greeting when you’re not really seeking factual declaration in response.
I don’t think there’s any serious dispute that some subset of social media expression is “phatic” – indeed, the early “poke” function on Facebook was essentially nothing more than that. Still, I don’t think I’m in the grip of any “emancipatory vision” when I insist that actual, meaningful, valuable, non-phatic communication – including both political (Meiklejohnian) and cultural (Emersonian or Balkinian) take place every day on social media platforms. So in my view, defending social media and internet expression as “phatic communication,” taken together with the implicit dismissal of the need for an informed citizenry as part of a “folk theory of democracy,” strikes me as no defense at all.
Also from this issue
Fake News and Our Real Problems by Will Rinehart
We expect that voters should be well-informed, and to that end the press is essential. Yet reconciling democracy and expertise is no easy task, and examples of the press behaving badly seem all too common, particularly in the form of fake news. Yet Rinehart argues that concern over fake news may be overblown, and he suggests that our democracy’s real problems lie elsewhere.
Social Media and the First Amendment’s Values by John Samples
John Samples draws on Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment to argue that social media is doing a reasonably good job at satisfying four widely shared values. He argues that it is doing particularly well in contrast to the television monoculture that preceded it.
What Do You Do with a Problem Like Social Media? by Mike Godwin
Mike Godwin argues that social media is still in its infancy, and it is much premature to declare it “broken.” He adds that non-political expressions of sociability should not be dismissed as valueless; they have great value both in themselves and as part of the process by which a republic is formed and perpetuated.
Democratic Culture Is More than Mere Voting by Kate Klonick
Kate Klonick argues that social media has empowered individuals to create a democratic culture that is much larger and more powerful than just what they do at the polls. Social media allows grassroots activism to work in new and important ways that don’t always aim at changing the way people vote, but that do change society all the same.
The term ‘moral panic’ can be defined as a ‘disproportional and hostile social reaction to a condition, person or group defined as a threat to societal values’. It is a term commonly associated with the media where stereotyping is represented and this leads to the demand for better social control and creating a reaction from the public eye, hence the term ‘panic’ (McLaughlin & Muncie, 2001). Hall et al. (1978) also analysed the idea of a ‘moral panic’ and suggested that when the reaction to a person or group is ‘out of proportion’ to the actual ‘threat’ and professionals in the area such as police and politicians also have a similar reaction and begin to voice solutions, rates of crime etc., in addition to the media representation of the so called ‘threat’ which becomes sensationalised and exaggerated, this is when it is appropriate to name the situation a moral panic. Cohen (1972) first looked at moral panics and stated that there are certain periods where society experiences moral panics and these could last for a lifetime or could be short-lived and forgotten. Cohen (1972) was one of the first to look at the term moral panic around Mods and Rockers in Britain and focused on the media coverage on these groups in the 1960s. The descriptions and the definitions the media used was the focus as it was the main outlet for society’s information. Cohen (1972) found that the media exaggerated statistics including the number of youths involved, the extent of the violence and the damage caused. Further distortion of events increased due to the sensational headlines and use of dramatic reporting. Cohen also found that the media used the word ‘mod’ to symbolise deviance and this symbolisation led to other events that may not have had anything to do with the current situation to be linked. Cohen continued on to describe the findings as having three common characteristics: diffusion, escalation and innovation. Diffusion is where situations in other places become associated with the original situation. Escalation is where there are demands for extreme measures to be carried out in order to minimise and exterminate the threat and innovation refers to the ‘increased powers’ for the police and courts to sort out the threat. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) also identified five key features that could describe moral panics: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility. In other words, a situation or event occurs and sparks panic among society which leads to the person or particular social group involved being labelled as folk devils then this goes on to spur a reaction which is ‘broad and unified’ within society. This leads to the exaggeration of the situation and the potential threat it poses which is further multiplied by the media’s reporting which could spark the panic but could also eliminate it too.
When it comes to street violence, youths are widely associated with this type of deviant behaviour. A recent ‘moral panic’ which was associated with youths and street violence was actually an item of clothing: the hoodie. During the 1990s, the term became associated with the sudden appearance of a subculture or group of people named ‘chavs’, young working class youths, in the UK. This led to the use of the term ‘hoodie culture’ used both by the media and public (Marsh & Meville, 2011). It is particularly in the UK that hoodies have been reacted to in such a negative way, so much so that the item of clothing has been banned in public places such as the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent. This banning of hoodies and other items of clothing which specifically could hide the face brought the ‘hoodie culture’ into the public’s awareness and this led to the raised concern of shoppers being weary of youths in such clothing (Marsh & Meville, 2011). The ban sparked public interest and debate and this led to the ‘meaning’ of hoodie being studied by journalists and individuals within education. McLean (2005) stated that hoodies stroked ‘fear into the heart of most people’ and Harrington (cited in McLean, 2005) on the subject of the Bluewater ban said that the ban ‘demonstrates a growing demonization’ on young people and there is an overreaction to any behaviour by these young people. This suggests that the concern over street violence involving youth can be seen as a moral panic because banning an item of clothing just because it is associated with such deviance due to the media representation of youths and what they happen to be wearing has been exaggerated which has meant that extreme measures would have to be taken to keep the public happy and enforce social control. The moral panic about hoodies according to Marsh and Meville (2011) was part of a wider concern about the anti-social behaviour of youths and, as with other panics, the reaction to this has been criticized by those within education and those working in the criminal justice system as exaggerated and unreasonable.
More than 65% of people consider youth crime is rising and experts agree there can be a connection between antisocial behaviour and serious youth crime. However, statistically, youth offending is actually falling. The number of 10-to-17-year-olds convicted or cautioned for a crime fell from 143,600 to 105,700 between 1992 and 2002 which was a drop of almost 26% (Barkham, 2005). Despite the dramatic drop in recorded crime overall, concerns about the behaviour of young people remains high, suggesting that society does not consider factual statistics when worrying about crime rates. In other words, stories of youth crime and general crime overall are sensationalised by the media and their representations of youth and descriptions used such as ‘out of control teenage gangs’. Concerns over youth crime and street violence have been consistent throughout the years as shown by Cohen (1972) for his work on Mods and Rockers. The behaviour of young people since then has caused anger about moral decline and lack of social control.
Crimes statistics show black youths, particularly young black males, commit a disproportionate amount of crime, however the media is known to sensationalise news stories and make vast exaggerations. In the early 70’s, an example of street violence that was first recorded as a ‘moral panic’ was mugging. Hall et al’s (1978) Policing the Crisis study demonstrates how the media shapes public views regarding a particular group in society. The 1970s moral panic surrounding muggings was blamed predominantly on young black men. For example, Arthur Hills was stabbed to death near Waterloo Station in London and this was one of the first crimes to be labelled as a mugging in the media. The stories in newspapers highly reported this type of crime as new and frightening. Professionals in the area such as police and judges were adamant that this was a huge threat to society. This even led to people thinking that the streets of Britain will become like those of New York or Chicago which had very high rates of street violence at the time (Hall, 1978). Hall criticised this form of reporting, stating that the panic and reaction towards these events were not understandable because in the past ‘footpads and garrotters’ had also committed violent crimes on the streets which were not labelled as muggings and therefore the idea of ‘mugging’ and ‘violent street crime’ was not new at all. Also the Home Secretary reported that ‘mugging’ was on a 129 per cent rise however Hall stated that there was no way to measure this because there was not an exact definition for this crime nor did a law apply to it. From Hall’s study on the statistics there was no evidence that violent crime was rising as fast in the time leading up to the panic. Using the nearest legal category to mugging which was ‘assault with intent to rob’, the official statistics showed a yearly rise of an average of 33.4 per cent between 1955 and 1965, but only a 14 per cent average annual increase from 1965 to 1972. This type of crime was growing more slowly as the time the panic took place then it had done so in previous decades.
Another example of a moral panic which involves street violence is the emergence of girl gangs and stories about how they ‘roam the streets randomly attacking innocent victims’. This has been a recurring story in newspaper headlines and magazines in recent years. Whilst there may be some support for these claims, the stories are likely to be a distortion of the facts; this is shown by statistics on offending patterns. A recent self-report survey found that assaults committed by females are more likely to involve a victim they know already and the victim is more predominately male rather than female (Budd et al., 2005). There is little known knowledge about the actual nature and seriousness of girls’ violent offending. It may be that assault carried out by a female is more likely to be as a result of anger or an act of self-defence, or against a police officer when confronted perhaps during a drunken night out, or parents, family members, or members of the public are more likely to bring violent acts committed by females to the attention of the police.
Outside the UK, there are other examples of moral panic and amplification by the media, for example slashing cases in Singapore. This involves Singaporean youth gang members who have recently have been reported in the media sparking fear among those living in Singapore (Palatino, 2010). The high documentation of these criminal acts is slightly exaggerated further by the mass media. These reports spark the public’s fear of being attack by youth gangs especially when high-profile cases such as the murder of Darren Ng at Downtown East was reported to occur in the evening between 5.30pm and 5.57pm which is a time period where school children would be on their way home. This further fuelled the anxiety felt by parents who were said to be already paranoid of their children making their own way to school. Moreover, there appeared to be very easy access to graphic and explicit pictures of the victim that were allowed to be released across both printed and online news outlets which sparked even more of a widespread panic of youth gang members being more brave to commit the crime again anytime during the day. Like in the UK, this ‘panic’ is slightly disproportional as updated statistics proves that crime rates in Singapore have been steadily decreasing. .
The series of attacks triggered the search for explanations on the idea of the rising of gang violence. Society aimed to explain the nature of fights taking place and whether they were random or due to revenge and the focus was also on the structure of gangs. Following the Downtown East incident, many reports talked about youth gangs- how an action as small as staring can lead to violent fights, reports also talked about why youths joined these gangs. News reports of the extreme cases reminded readers about the significant attack at Downtown East that created further concerns over gang-related violence in Singapore. News reports of being arrest were frequent to remind the society of the strict laws and the consequences of such violent acts. Although there were no specific details mentioned, the report came with comments by Minister of Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam, to assure the public tough acts were taken to tackle youth gangs. Comments by public figures like Minister of MCYS also bring public attention to at-risk youths on the importance of increase community initiatives to prevent them from gang associations. The situation of the Singapore youth slashing highly supported Goode and Ben Yehuda’s (1994) features of moral panics.
Black youth crime and the image of black youths in the media have generated considerable publicity in recent years. The recent fatal knife and gun crimes in London involving black youths were highlighted by the media which in turn produced a moral panic surrounding the issue.
In recent years there has been quite a lot of media coverage involving black youths and crime. Particularly in 2006 and 2007 there was a spate of fatal stabbings and shootings amongst black youth. For example, the deaths of Kodjo Yenga and Adam Regis in March 2007. These two murders were of huge interest to the media as it was during a period where black youth crime in London was highlighted. Kodjo Yenga was stabbed in the heart just five days after being interviewed on television about knife crime and its prevalence. Just days after this murder, Adam Regis was stabbed to death on the streets of East London on his way home after meeting with friends. These are only two examples of black youth crime that made its way into the media in 2007. There had in fact been over twenty murders involving black youths in London alone in 2007 (Okoronkwo, 2008)
It would be useful to gain an understanding of why black youth crime is such a huge issue and why it is highlighted so much in the media. News agendas and news values ultimately decide what is to be broadcasted and in what particular order. There are twelve news structures and news values that shape crime news (Jewkes, 2004). Under the news value threshold it is stated that in order for something to be deemed newsworthy it has to meet a certain level of significance. The media create moral panics according to their criteria of news values (Okorokwo, 2008). ‘Once a story has reached the required threshold it may have to meet further thresholds to stay on the agenda, the story is often kept alive due to the creation of new thresholds, some stories are used as fillers during quiet news periods and tend to be reported in waves, suggesting a widespread social problem rapidly approaching crisis point,’ (Jewkes, 2004, p.41). The media has been accused of sensationalising events surrounding violent black youth crime, attaching a level of drama making it newsworthy. This reporting of crime and deviance plays a vital role in shaping the public’s view of crime and its suspects. Eighty six percent of white homicide victims are killed by other whites, and most homicide victims know each other.
In conclusion, it seems that concern over street violence can be seen as a moral panic because overall crime statistics show that crime is actually decreasing rather than decreasing. However, in order to earn good money and sell more, the media seem to exaggerate and sensationalise every lone even to make it seem like it happens every day even if it’s a rare occurrence. A good example to support this claim was the Lee Rigby murder. One lone horrible act of violence had the public up in a panic over fears they would be hacked in the street or murdered in a similar way even though the perpetrators were caught. This goes to show how much power the media really has in terms of social control.