Thursday, 6 April 2017

WSJ vs YouTube Moral Panic Redux

If rock music can turn you into a Satanist,
We can turn you into a Nazi!


Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a study of UK media coverage of and reaction to rival youth groups published in 1972 by former London School of Economics sociology professor Stanley Cohen remains to this day the definitive text on media generated mass hysteria.  A moral panic occurs when the perceived threat posed by a given social phenomenon is vastly greater than the actual threat that they really pose.

Moral panics are often instigated by "moral entrepreneurs" - people with a desire to either adopt or discontinue a particular social norm.  These moral entrepreneurs work hand-in-glove with mass media to create a "deviancy amplification spiral" that takes place when mass media becomes fixated and sensationalistic in its coverage of the behaviors that the moral entrepreneurs are seeking to change.  Persons targeted by the moral entrepreneurs as being responsible for the targeted antisocial behaviors are, not surprisingly, cast in a consistently negative light and Cohen refers to them as "folk devils."

Once they start, moral panics make reasoned discussion of the issues in question more difficult, impossible even if sufficient levels of outrage and hysteria are generated.  Further, Cohen asserts that moral panics reveal a great deal about social divisions and the fault lines of power in the societies in which they occur.  What is essential to understand is that moral panic is most likely to ensue when moral entrepreneurs, public or organizational authorities and the media all stand to gain through an increase in public concern over such-and-such an issue.

  • Moral entrepreneurs see the social and cultural change they're after, or at least a push in that direction.
  • Public (or private) authorities get to extend their power, under the pretense of countering whatever the threat to normalcy happens to be.
  • The media enjoys a wider audience, and the attraction to advertisers that this results in.
The relationship between authorities, media and moral entrepreneurs is mutually reinforcing.  The moral entrepreneurs rely on the media to present their concerns to the public and on the authorities for taking action to curb the folk devils and the antisocial behaviors they're supposedly engaging in.  The authorities rely on the moral entrepreneurs for contextual "information" to act upon, and on the media to advise the public of their proposed course of action.  The media itself relies on the moral entrepreneurs and the authorities to provide sensational content.  

The perverse incentives and feedback loops that this inevitably creates results in the level of threat being exaggerated and targeted scapegoats being demonized to an extent far greater than the actual level of harm they do, hence Cohen's reference to them as folk devils.  It should stand to reason that moral panics usually feed off of existing social prejudices, and target people with relatively little in the way of power and resources with which to fight back, at least at first.

Moral panics are a recurring phenomenon in most societies.  Among the better ones that I can recall off the top of my head, named according to the folk devils involved, include:
  • The "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s - one I remember well because as a role playing gamer and heavy metal music fan in those days, I was a target of it.  Vast numbers of Satanic cultists were allegedly involved in ritualistic child abuse and sacrifice.
  • The natural predecessors of the Satanic Panic, the witch crazes of late medieval Europe and early America.
  • Various anti-communist panics, such as the red scare of the 1920s and McCarthyism in the 50s.
  • Evil music: Hostility to the use of instruments in early and medieval Christendom, Jazz in the 1920s, early rock and roll in the 1950s, heavy metal in the 1980s, gangsta rap in the 1990s.
  • Video games: Exposure to games desensitizes youth to violence, makes youth lazy and obese, games are addictive to the detriment of family and relationships, games portray certain kinds of people in a negative light, objectify women, etc.  Gamers are dope-pushing gangsters (when arcades were a thing, back in the 70s and 80s) and/or neckbeard misogynists (the much more recent gamergate controversy) and so on.
You get the picture.  Sometimes a moral panic is just a cultural meme that spins out of control, but sometimes panics occur at the behest of some elite or another, with a vested interest in suppressing a group they don't like.  Anti-socialist and anti-communist panics being supported by big business interests as an obvious example.  Whether or not this applies to more recent tendency for YouTube to be portrayed as a wretched hive of Nazi scum and racist villainy in legacy media outlets, the Wall Street Journal in particular, has yet to be firmly decided.

The Wall Street Journal has reported, not entirely illegitimately, on the "objectionable content" of some prominent YouTubers.  YouTubers have suggested, again not entirely illegitimately, that the motivations behind this WSJ coverage are not so pure as they'd have the public believe.  

The latest, as I write this, is that Ethan Klein of the popular YouTube channel H3H3 has taken down a video in which he made apparently false allegations that the WSJ used a doctored photo to illustrate that advertisers on YouTube were inadvertently supporting bigoted content.  Allegations among the YouTube community, summed up, is that the WSJ is stirring up a moral panic over objectionable content to deter companies advertising on YouTube, and thereby hurting a medium that has come to constitute a threat to the legacy media's customer base.  This after WSJ coverage of controversial opinions expressed by prominent YouTubers PewDiePie and Jontron.  

YouTube has recently responded with a statement that it will require a YouTube channel to have over 10,000 views before it becomes eligible for monetization.  

There's no sense in denying the presence of racist and fascist voices on YouTube. Plus, there is no need to contrive false stories of writers for the WSJ intentionally doctoring material to falsify claims of objectionable content on YouTube.  You do not have to look long and hard for real racist and fascist content on YouTube.  Trust me on that one.  

But YouTube itself is not a racist or a fascist platform.  The occasional troll is a small price to pay to have what is potentially the reach of a film or television studio at the disposal of anyone with a laptop with a camera and an internet connection.  This is the angle that I would advise both YouTube itself and the YouTube community to take vis-a-vis this whole matter (as if they're going to listen to me!)  Do not deny the presence of objectionable content.  Rather, promote the platform as a vehicle for the democratization of mass media - something that progressive people should be supportive of rather than intimidated by, as has apparently been the case in the wake of this issue.  Regressive leftists are going to regress.  Who'd have guessed?

Were YouTube and its prominent voices to say something to the effect that, "Yes, there are a few bad apples, but it's the price we pay to have a platform that promotes and enables free speech and gives what was once mass media reach to now just about anybody" and portray itself as a populist and democratizing agent in mass media, otherwise notorious for corporate concentration and control, surely some of these lost advertisers would return.  Isn't this preferable to knuckling under to regressive moral panic over alleged racism and fascism - not entirely unfounded but certainly exaggerated, and thereby allowing the much more genuinely authoritarian phenomenon of corporate concentration of mass media to suppress this historically unique democratizing media platform?

YouTube has systems in place to report objectionable content, and as any YouTuber would tell you, videos can get demonetized or even deleted and channels shut down at the drop of a hat, with violations of kafkaesque "community standards" being one of many reasons that this can occur.  YouTube itself and its communities can make the broader public aware of this without fabricating conspiracy theories or trying to fight moral panic fire with fire.  That the WSJ has a vested interest in curtailing the proliferation of new media does not require allegations of falsifying evidence to prove that such-and-such a YouTuber is a Nazi.  This need merely be suggested and from there left to the judgement of the broader public to reflect upon.

YouTube itself, and the YouTube community as a whole can also pose the broader questions of where do the more valid comparisons with fascism really lie: in lame jokes and easily debunked conspiracy theories told by a marginalized minority within the YouTube community, or the use of moral panic in the organization of a corporate boycott by what is by name a quintessentially corporate media organ to financially starve a media platform that potentially gives a mass media scale voice to the people as a whole, even those without the mass media scale capital base this has, until now, required?  

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