A Brief History of Moral Panics

Throughout history, each development in the storage and distribution of information has caused considerable consternation.

Socrates worried about the invention of writing:

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

And he was not alone! Plato was more succinct in expressing his fear:

Writing is a step backward for truth.

These concerns only increased when the printing press came along centuries later. Here's German polymath's Gottfried Wilhelm reaction in 1680:

The horrible mass of books that keeps growing might lead to a fall back into barbarism.

And, of course, the 20th century's rise of mass media is not exempt from these issues.

U.S. Senator Clyde L. Herring railed against radio in the 1930s, proposing that the FCC should review transcripts of broadcasts to ensure that they were not against public interest. He wrote:

Radio invades the sanctity of the home.

And Neil Postman, who published Amusing Ouselves to Death in 1985, captured some of the concerns about television:

[T]elevision is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplace, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

Replace "television" with "social media," and Postman's quote captures today's concerns about the internet.

There is certainly cause for concern: We've never before had information that algorithmically adjusts to users' preferences.

But when we look at the precedents, we can see that we've successfully adjusted to every other shift in how information is distributed.

As I was writing this, Twitter suspended congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene's personal account for spreading COVID misinformation and violating its policies for a 5th time.

We're adapting.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.


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