‘Lovejoy’s Law’ And Tech Moral Panics


from the helen-lovejoy-joy-killing dept

One of the central arguments for a recent rash of age verification laws across the country is to “protect the children.” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox called his signing of controversial social media laws a means for “protecting our kids from the harms of social media.” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a press conference that her signing of the so-called Social Media Safety Act will help prevent the “massive negative impact on our kids.” Once he entered office, Sen. Josh Hawley, said that loot boxes in popular video games placed “a casino in the hands of every child in America.” Louisiana State Rep. Laurie Schlegel called her unconstitutional age verification bill in order to access pornography in the state a measure to counter how “pornography is destroying our children.” This all sounds the same.

“Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Do you all know who said that? The one and only Helen Lovejoy says this quote quite often in the fictional animated universe of The Simpsons. If we recall our elementary school ‘Simpsons’-ology, Helen is the morally crusading wife of the town reverend seeking to make the world a better place for the children. Or, at least, Helen making the world a better place for the children based on her worldview. Anything that pops Helen’s bubble of an ideal society for the small radioactive burg of Springfield, USA, is nothing more than a threat to the town’s morality. Helen leads grassroots campaigns to demonize and ban the things threatening her ideal, little bubble.

Some call this ‘Lovejoy’s law’ to further parody the over-the-top caricature of a socially-conservative moralist who believes that everything they disagree with is either the work of Satan or woke leftists. In criminology and sociology, this sort of individual could be referred to as a moral entrepreneur. Moral entrepreneurs are people who take the lead in developing and labeling a particular behavior or belief and spreading the label through the society at large. These individuals also lead in the construction of what they refer to as a criminally deviant or socially unacceptable behavior. These individuals also are those who organize at the grassroots level, like Mrs. Lovejoy, to establish and enforce a set of rules against behavior that these individuals define as criminally deviant or socially unacceptable. These fine folks perpetrate moral panic. Moral panic isn’t just a weird trope used by politicians and the punditry.

It’s a legitimate social phenomenon modeled by world-renowned criminologist Stanley Cohen. Cohen created a series of sequential levels to understand the role of “folk devils” as societal outsiders as labeled by the moral entrepreneurs who wish to do away with a particular class of individuals who engage in the identified behavior or action. Between the presence of mass media, moral entrepreneurs, a social control culture, and the general public, a moral panic can progress based on misinformed, disinformed, or outright false info surrounding the targets of the moral panic – or, as already mentioned above, the folk devils. Individuals like Spencer Cox, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Josh Hawley, Laurie Schlegel – even the fictional Helen Lovejoy – qualify as “moral entrepreneurs” attempting to take down their targeted folk devils in big tech, legal porn, and free speech proponents advocating for speech they disagree with.

All of these individuals have axes to grind against the folk devils, and are effectively doing so by proposing, passing, and implementing laws that have much greater impact and are likely to have very little effect on resolving the crises these people have identified. This is a standard belief among the moral entrepreneurs. And, this isn’t the first time technology – social media, age verification, cell phones, video games, online legal pornography, and excessive internet use, for example – has seen moral panic lead to public policies and socio-legal remedies rise to the level of restricting basic civil liberties.

Let’s consider some brief historical examples of a governmental response to technological moral panic. The office of the U.S. Surgeon General released an evidence report in 1972 in response to concerns that televised violence was adverse to the public health of youth. The actual report, however, found violent television doesn’t have an adverse effect on the vast majority of youth in the country but may influence very small groups of youth who are predisposed to be potentially aggressive or they are already aggressive.

But, these groups are also influenced by a plethora of external and internal factors. Critics of the report attempted to use the Surgeon General’s findings as further evidence that violent television negatively impacts youth, despite the fact that the peer-review of the existing literature of the time said this risk impacts a very small portion of youth who are stuck with the predisposition and effects pointed out.

Decades later, concern over violence in video games also rose from moral panic. U.S. Supreme Court, of all institutions, responded to the political and legislative pressures to censor violent video games during the 1990s by declaring that there is no clear connection between adverse violence in real life settings and the playing of video games with violent depictions. In fact, the American Psychological Association issued a policy statement that told news outlets that they “should avoid stating explicitly or implicitly that criminal offenses were caused by violent media” such as violent video games. Some studies have even correlated a reduction in violent crime with the rise of violent video gaming.

Internet pornography has similar history. Internet pornography is one of the longest persisting moral panics, and the development of the web has made the moral panic more prominent. Whether we discuss the moral panic of online porn that led to the proposal of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 or the current attempts to restrict pornography “in the name of the children” at the state level, the moral entrepreneurs have the same belief guiding their motivations to eliminate the folk devils, or porn. They say that pornography itself is addictive. Or, pornography is somehow correlated to sex trafficking. Or, that pornography leads to increased instances of sexual violence and sexually related criminal offenses. But, as was the case for violence on television and in video games decades before, the opposite is true. Pornography addiction isn’t recognized by mainstream psychiatry. Incidence of sexual violence is much lower in jurisdictions where legally produced pornography is widely available. Online porn is regulated and there is little to no evidence to suggest that legally produced pornography is linked to trafficking.

All of these moral panics have led to some sort of political, legislative, or legal response where the moral entrepreneurs have lobbied their elected officials to push for policies that erode civil liberties and rights for people who are otherwise law-abiding, tax-paying, and productive members of society. Researchers Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson wrote on this issue for the American Journal of Play

“Unfortunately, moral panics can be damaging,” Markey and Ferguson argue, adding that moral panics “can greatly damage the lives of individuals caught up in them.” Though they are writing on the panics related to violent video games, the commonality of the statements are clear regardless of the actual issue.

Markey and Ferguson also point out that researchers and organizations with a particular special interest or agenda have used the moral panic to conduct ethically and scientifically questionable research to just inflame the public’s fear even more. We’ve seen this with bogus studies on so-called porn addiction, internet addiction, and so much more. Now, we are starting to see this with “social media addiction.”

I wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune recently criticizing Utah’s social media bills. In the column, I discuss the claims that Gov. Cox made with regards to social media’s harms against minors.

Cox said that his office will conduct “research” into the harms of social media use among minors. In the tradition of the great Helen Lovejoy, the socially-conservative governor endorsed legislation that restricts access for minors based on a body of misguided and erroneous evidence. It’s this type of flawed research that gives moral entrepreneurs a supposed academic façade that further demonizes and damages the rights, welfare, and general wellbeing of the folk devils. Even if the folk devils are technology companies, there is this thing called the law of unintended consequences. Age-restriction laws on mainstream social media platforms can be perceived and rightfully registered as infringements on First Amendment rights for users of all ages. Social media regulations on age will harm modern socialization norms for youth.

Despite what the Helen Lovejoys of the world think, folk devils – regardless being tech companies or individuals – have rights. Restricting those rights through moral panic driven lawmaking is unethical.

Michael McGrady is a journalist and commentator focusing on the tech side of the online porn business, among other things.

Filed Under: age verification, josh hawley, laurie schlegel, lovejoy’s law, moral panics, sarah huckabee sanders, spencer cox, think of the children

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