Last Updated on 20/12/2021 by Ulka
For many, it should have been the last day of school before winter break turned into a day of worry and rumours of impending peril for many youngsters across the United States.
Officials around the country were reacting on Thursday to widespread social media posts claiming that schools would be the target of shootings on December 17th. Some schools cancelled classes or let students stay at home. Others stated that police presence on campus would be increased. Some just stated that they were keeping an eye on the situation. But almost everyone seemed to agree on one thing: the threats officials were hearing about were not genuine.
Meanwhile, TikTok was flooded with videos: “POV your parents are forcing you to stay at home due to the December 17th craze,” one post reads. Another says, “Guys, keep careful; I’m staying home.” “I hope everyone is doing well.”
Thankfully, there have been no reports of widespread violence at schools as of Friday afternoon, and TikTok has begun to remove some of the more scary warnings about the possibility for violence from its platform. However, it’s still unclear when the warnings began – or whether any threats of violence existed in the first place.
People who saw school violence warnings on TikTok were undoubtedly primed to react, so it’s simple to see how the fear spread. The rumours began to circulate just weeks after a horrific school shooting. And viral threats have a history of gaining traction when they prey on people’s most pressing concerns, particularly when the source is assumed to be a new technology.
“We can think about media panics dating back several centuries, perhaps,” says James Walsh, an associate professor at the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology who has written about social media and societal panic. “Adult culture has always been concerned about the potential for new media material or new media technologies to corrupt young, vulnerable minds.”
Experts think it’s vital to look at the context to understand how erroneous rumours can spread so quickly. According to Walsh, many people are undoubtedly thinking about the recent attack at Oxford High School.
“Some of the particular of the Oxford High cases may be driving the alarm as well,” Walsh adds, “given that it sounds like a pretty clear case of institutional failure where all the symptoms were there but not enough action was taken ahead of time.”
A school shooting is far more serious than viral issues like teenagers vandalising bathrooms. Even if there is no definitive evidence, the necessity to respond to a potential threat may take precedence. “I’m always hesitant to close because we’ve learned that going to school in person is the most effective thing,” says Jake Langlais, superintendent of Lewiston Public Schools in Maine, which closed on Friday after receiving allegations of a threat on social media.
According to Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media, “potential threats gain hold even without clear proof because they often touch on people’s true worries.” For example, the Momo hoax in 2019 preyed on parents who were concerned about their children’s suicide and was publicised by celebrities, police, and schools.
“We have no idea whence they came from or how true they are,” Elgersma said of viral threats. “And we still feel driven to amplify them in the hopes that they have some validity.”
Despite the fact that TikTok is mentioned in letters to parents and police statements as the source of the alleged violence, Elgersma believes that the way this kind of information spreads is more about the context and the type of threat.
“I believe it could have taken on a similar life in this situation if a child had told their parent about it and then the parent had put it on Facebook,” she says.
It’s also possible that TikTok’s reputation as a mysterious new environment for kids had a part. The fear of a new media — whether it’s a new app, comic books, or heavy metal — predates the internet, according to Walsh. There’s a concern, Walsh adds, that youngsters will repeat anything they see online, which might lead to a major injury.
The apparent threats’ viral nature also made it difficult for local governments to know how to respond. After receiving a disturbing threat about a “North Middle” School in Rapid City, South Dakota, public schools were forced to close. “And so we have a North Middle School here in Rapid City — and every state in the United States,” says James Johns, the Rapid City Police Department’s captain of criminal investigations. The department subsequently discovered that the message came from another state.
Despite the lack of accusations of violence, several local news sites report arrests for alleged threats or jokes. After witnessing the TikTok video, a 13-year-old kid confessed to making fake threats against a middle school in Frederick County, Maryland, according to officials. Police in Florida detained a 13-year-old for making jokey social media posts on TikTok and Instagram. In Connecticut, another 13-year-old was detained for making threats against a school.
TikTok claimed it looked but couldn’t discover any content today that promotes violence in schools. It is currently seeking to remove “alarmist warnings” about possible shootings, claiming that the messages violate the company’s anti-misinformation policies. Despite this, videos of the attacks have received millions of views, with children, parents, teachers, and campaigners expressing their alarm.
According to Elgersma, the best thing schools and officials can do is provide as much background information as possible to the public and make it appear that they’re erring on the side of caution but that threats aren’t real. On Twitter, the FBI’s Boston branch encouraged the public to stop forwarding or distributing threats.
Although TikTok users say they haven’t seen any threats, they say the terror caused by popular posts is very real. Kantina Saunders, a mother of two who lives just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, was unaware of the threats until she saw other parents sharing letters they had gotten the night before. Then she got a note from her school superintendent this morning, suggesting that, despite the threats being unsubstantiated, the school would provide excused absences to those who wished to stay at home.
The message brought back deep emotions and dread for Saunders, who personally survived a school shooting at her high school in 2008. Saunders is crying in a TikTok she created after dropping her kids off at school because she couldn’t keep them home today because she had to work.
In a text message to The Verge, Saunders said, “I’ll feel a little better after they come home.” “However, I’m not sure I’ll ever be okay with kids going to school since I’m afraid of what might happen at this point.”