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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Videos warning of attacks on schools spread across the US, but nobody can pinpoint where the rumors started

For many students across the US, what should have been the last day of school before winter break instead became a day filled with fear and rumors of imminent danger.

On Thursday, officials across the country were responding to viral posts on social media saying schools would be the target of shootings on December 17th. Some canceled classes or allowed kids to stay home. Others said they would increase police presence on campus. And some simply said they were monitoring the situation. But just about everyone was united in one message: the threats officials were hearing about were deemed to be not credible.

TikTok, meanwhile, was awash in videos: “POV your parents are making you stay home because of the December 17th trend,” reads one post. “Guys stay safe; I’m staying home,” says another. “Hope everybody is okay.”

“Adult society has always been concerned about how new media … [is] going to corrupt young, impressionable minds”

Now into Friday afternoon, there thankfully haven’t been reports of widespread violence at schools, and TikTok has begun to remove some of the more alarming warnings on its platform about the potential for violence. But it’s still unknown where the warnings started — or if threats of violence even existed in the first place.

It’s easy to see how the concern spread, though, since people who saw warnings of school violence on TikTok were likely primed to react. The rumors were spreading just weeks after a deadly school attack. And viral threats have a history of taking hold when they prey on what people worry about the most, especially when the source is thought to be a new technology.

“We can think about media panics going back several centuries, potentially, but at least over the past 100 years,” James Walsh, associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who has written about social media and societal panic, tells The Verge. “Adult society has always been concerned about how new media content or new media technologies are going to corrupt young, impressionable minds.”

To understand how unfounded rumors can spread so effectively, experts say it’s important to look at the context. Walsh says the recent attack at Oxford High School is likely top of mind for many.

“Some of the specifics of the Oxford High case may be driving the panic as well, given that it sounds like a pretty clear case of institutional failure where all the signs were there but not enough action was taken in advance,” Walsh says.

We’re taking the TikTok “challenge” seriously. Challenge encourages students to make violent threats on schools on Fri, 12/17. Proactive policing can be expected w/ marked squads and an increased police presence at all @ISD728 schools, despite having no specific threats reported. pic.twitter.com/n1CpmKe8lR

— Elk River Police Department (@elkriverpolice) December 17, 2021

And compared to viral challenges like students vandalizing bathrooms, the gravity of a school shooting is significant. The need to respond to a potential threat, even without definitive evidence, may take precedence. “I’m always hesitant to close because we’ve learned school in-person is the most effective thing but not at the risk of student or staff safety,” says Jake Langlais, superintendent of Lewiston Public Schools in Maine, which closed down on Friday after receiving reports of a threat on social media.

Possible threats take hold even without concrete proof because they often touch on people’s legitimate fears, says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media. The Momo hoax in 2019, for example, preyed on parents worried about suicide and was amplified by celebrities, police, and schools.

“We don’t really know where they originated or how valid they are,” Elgersma says of viral threats. “And we still feel compelled to amplify them in case there is some legitimacy to them.”

“If a kid had told their parent about it and then the parent had posted it on Facebook, I think it could have taken on a similar kind of life”

And though letters to parents and statements from police list TikTok as the source of the alleged violence, Elgersma says the way this kind of information travels is likely less about platforms and functionality and more about the context and the type of threat.

“I think in this case, if a kid had told their parent about it and then the parent had posted it on Facebook, I think it could have taken on a similar kind of life,” she says.

TikTok being seen as a mysterious new space for kids may have played a role, too. Walsh points out that panic around a medium — whether it’s a new app, or comic books, or heavy metal — predates the internet. With digital spaces specifically, Walsh says, there’s a fear that kids will parrot anything they see that could cause serious harm.

The viral nature of the supposed threats also made it difficult for local districts to know how to react. In Rapid City, South Dakota, public schools shut down after seeing a concerning message mentioning a “North Middle” School. “And so here at Rapid City, we have a North Middle School — and so does every state in the United States,” says James Johns, captain of criminal investigations at the Rapid City Police Department. The department eventually determined the message originated in another state.

Though there haven’t been reports of violence, some local news outlets report arrests made for potential threats or jokes. In Frederick County, Maryland, officials say a 13-year-old student confessed to making false threats against a middle school after seeing TikTok content. In Florida, police arrested a 13-year-old for social media posts on TikTok and Instagram that he said were a joke. Another 13-year-old was also arrested in Connecticut for threats made against a school.

TikTok said it searched but did not find any content promoting violence at schools today. It’s now working to remove “alarmist warnings” about potential shootings, saying the posts violate rules against misinformation. But videos referencing attacks still racked up millions of views, with kids, parents, teachers, and advocates expressing concern.

If you see a threat of violence against a school or any other public place posted on social media, immediately contact local law enforcement or your local #FBI office. DO NOT share or forward the threat. Doing so can spread misinformation and cause panic. #ThinkBeforeYouPost pic.twitter.com/1v87a2DHMX

— FBI Boston (@FBIBoston) December 17, 2021

The best thing schools and officials can do, Elgersma says, is to give the public as much background as possible and to be clear that they’re erring on the side of caution but that threats aren’t credible. The FBI’s Boston office on Twitter asked the public to refrain from forwarding or sharing threats.

TikTok users say that though they didn’t see threats firsthand, the fear sparked by viral posts is very much real. Kantina Saunders, a mom of two who lives just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, hadn’t heard about the threats until she saw other parents posting letters they received last night. Then she got a note from her school superintendent this morning, saying that though threats were unfounded, the school was granting excused absences for those who wanted to stay home.

For Saunders, who herself survived a school shooting at her high school in 2008, the letter brought on intense flashbacks and fear. In a TikTok she made after putting her kids on the bus, Saunders is crying — she couldn’t keep them home today because she has to work.

“I’ll feel a little better after they come home,” Saunders told The Verge in a text message. “But I probably won’t ever be ok with them going to school because I know what could happen at this point.”

Additional reporting by Kim Lyons

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