How panic over rumored school shooting threats went viral

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

On Thursday, officials across the country responded to posts on social media saying schools would be the target of shootings on December 17th. Kids were allowed to stay home. Police presence on the campus would be increased. Some people said they were watching the situation. The threats officials were hearing about were deemed to be not credible.

The December 17th trend was the subject of a lot of videos on TikTok. One person says that they are staying home. Hope everyone is okay.

Adult society has always been concerned about how new media will affect young minds.

There have been no reports of widespread violence at schools since Friday afternoon, and TikTok has begun to remove some of the more alarming warnings on its platform. It is not known where the warnings started or if threats of violence existed in the first place.

Since people who saw warnings of school violence on TikTok were likely to react, it is easy to see how the concern spread. There were rumors about a school attack. When the source of the threat is thought to be a new technology, it's a good time for it to take hold.

James Walsh, an associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, has written about media panics over the past 100 years. Adult society has always been concerned about how new media will affect young minds.

Experts say it is important to look at the context to understand how rumors can spread. The recent attack at Oxford High School is likely top of mind for many.

The Oxford High case may be driving the panic because it seems like a pretty clear case of institutional failure where all the signs were there but not enough action was taken in advance.

We are taking the challenge seriously. The challenge encourages students to make threats. Increased police presence at all of the schools is expected despite no specific threats reported.
The Police Department of the City of Elk River.

The gravity of a school shooting is significant compared to other challenges. The need to respond to a potential threat may be more important than definitive evidence. Jake Langlais, the superintendent of Lewiston Public Schools in Maine, says that he is always hesitant to close because he knows school in-person is the most effective thing but not at the risk of student or staff safety.

Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media, says that threats are often touch on people's legitimate fears. The Momo hoax was amplified by celebrities, police, and schools, preying on parents worried about suicide.

Elgersma doesn't know where the threats came from or how valid they are. We feel compelled to amplify them if there is some legitimacy to them.

If a kid told their parent about it and the parent posted it on Facebook, I think it would have taken off.

Elgersma says the way this kind of information travels is likely less about platforms and functions and more about the context and the type of threat.

She thinks that if a child had told their parent about it and then the parent posted it on Facebook, it could have taken on a similar life style.

TikTok being seen as a new space for kids may have played a part. Walsh points out that panic around a medium, whether it's a new app, or comic books, or heavy metal,predates the internet. Walsh says there is a fear that kids will harm themselves if they see something that could cause serious harm.

The nature of the threats made it difficult for local districts to know how to respond. In Rapid City, South Dakota, public schools were closed after seeing a message. Every state in the United States has a North Middle School, says James Johns, captain of criminal investigations at the Rapid City Police Department. The message came from another state.

There have been no reports of violence, but some local news outlets report arrests for threats or jokes. In Frederick County, officials say a student confessed to making false threats after seeing TikTok. The 13-year-old was arrested in Florida for posting on social media that he said were a joke. A 13-year-old was arrested in Connecticut for making threats against a school.

TikTok did not find any content that promoted violence at schools today. The posts violate rules against misinformation and are being removed. Videos about 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 other public place posted on social media, immediately contact your local FBI office. Don't forward the threat or share it with others. Doing so can cause panic.
The FBI Boston posted on December 17, 2021.

Elgersma says that the best thing schools and officials can do is to give the public as much background as possible and to be clear that threats aren't credible. The FBI asked the public to refrain from sharing threats.

TikTok users say that the fear caused by viral posts is real. When she saw that other parents had received letters, she realized she hadn't heard about the threats. She received a note from her school's administrator this morning saying that they were giving excused absences to people who wanted to stay home.

The letter brought on intense memories of the 2008 school shooting in which she was a survivor. She couldn't keep her kids home today because she had to work, so she made a TikTok.

After they come home, I will feel a little better, according to a text message from the man. I know what could happen at this point, so I won't be ok with them going to school.

Kim Lyons reports additional reporting.