A moral panic is characterized by a feeling held by a substantial number of members of a given society, that evil doers pose a threat to society and to the moral order as a consequence of their behavior.
The term "moral panic" suggests a dramatic and rapid overreaction to forms of deviance or wrongdoing believed to be a direct threat to society. They tend to occur at times of social upheaval when people are struggling to adjust; there is a general feeling of lack of control and declining standards. At these times people tend to group into a kind of social collective, further defined by identify victims on which all that is wrong of society may be blamed. The cycle of moral panics begins as suggested with a deviant or criminal act, which is generally considered to be a threat to the fabric of society. The media identify and exaggerate the deviancy in simplified terms, sometimes selectively misrepresenting and occasionally even deliberately instigating events in the pursuit of headlines. The deviants are as a result stigmatized and acknowledged as an "out-group" from mainstream society-being represented and rumored as "not to be trusted" and as "troublemakers", social isolation of the "out-group" results, and they are categorized almost as a sub-culture. In turn those involved may gradually identify with this role, further increasing the likelihood of deviant behavior. Following the media frenzy and stigmatization of the "out-group' public fears and indignation are aroused and agitated, there are calls for action to be taken and for "something to be done" in order to defuse the deviant actions, so that society can return to stability and order. This is followed by a response from public figures such as politicians, the police force, magistrates and religious leaders amongst others, which in turn further concentrates focus and concern by the pubic at large. .
One recent example of a moral panic was the case of the James Bulger murder in the early 1990s.