How Do You Know?

Apparently, today is “National Shoot Up Your School Day.”

News outlets are reporting that schools are stepping up security following a rash of viral threats circulating on the TikTok platform. The ones who have spent more than 15 seconds researching their news stories are also including a statement from law enforcement saying they are aware of the issue, but have seen no credible threats.

Schools and law enforcement agencies have to take these things seriously. This school year, the US has seen an average of one school shooting incident per week. So when someone says they’re going to shoot up a school, they have to believe them.

Image Source: ACLU of New York

But the real problem here isn’t the threat itself. It’s the social media frenzy about the threat. School officials and law enforcement are responding to social media posts shared by parents who are reposting warnings about other social media posts. It’s the reaction that’s actually spreading it.

Back in September, the Internet was abuzz with the “Devious Lick” TikTok challenge. A student stole a box of COVID masks and posted a video about it. Other students started taking things like paper towels, toilet paper, and soap. Within a week or so, students were vandalizing school restrooms. By the end of September, the trend had pretty much died out.

A few days later, the TikTok Challenge list started circulating on Facebook. Yeah, Facebook. Parents and school counselors and teachers and principals were pointing to it and reposting. “Look what’s going around on TikTok now!” The list had a challenge for each month, including things like “slap a teacher” and “kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school.”

But that list didn’t come from TikTok. From the wording, it’s pretty clear it wasn’t even written by a kid. And most students heard about this list from their parents or teachers, not from TikTok. A little online sleuthing found that the source for much of this was a police officer in Idaho. He’s an officer who works in schools and he has a large social media following. So when he posts something that says “all the kids are talking about this,” people start reposting it. And others see and share it, and people get worried, and they talk to their kids about it. And the kids don’t have any idea what they’re talking about, because the viral part of this is the reaction from parents. And that’s all happening over in geriatric Facebook land.

When asked about it, the officer simply said that he had seen it, and shared it without verifying it. There’s no real way to know if this is real, and we’re better off if people have more information, right? He sees no need to investigate all the crazy things he reads on the Internet before giving them his stamp of credibility by posting them under his badge.

I should say here that the Reply All podcast did a wonderful job of investigating and reporting on this a couple months ago. You should listen to it. A lot of this background comes from that podcast.

I should also say that, apart from allowing anonymous posting, this isn’t really a TikTok problem. I think anonymity has outlived its usefulness online, and that allowing people to broadcast content without their identity attached creates more harm than good. But there’s nothing specifically evil about TikTok other than the fact that it’s more popular with younger people, and the rest of us don’t quite understand it.

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were trying to dispel the hoax that Bill Gates was going to give you money for forwarding emails. We spent a whole lot of time teaching our kids and our parents that information is useless without context. How do you know that you can trust the information you’re reading? What is the source of the assertion you are citing? Have you assessed the credibility of that source?

“I read on Facebook that a Mom says she heard from her church group that someone’s sister in law was talking to a teacher…” We’re pretty good at seeing through that and at least trying to do some independent verification. But as school officials and law enforcement agencies and news outlets, we have to be a lot more careful. If we start sharing these things, the story become “My child’s school told us…” or “The New York Times is reporting…” or “The police chief issued a statement…” If we are allowing our credibility to be associated with information, we have to make sure we’ve verified that information first.

Inevitably, I go back to Oscar Hammerstein on this stuff:

And it puzzle me to learn
That though a man may be in doubt of what he know
Very quickly he will fight
He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!

I didn’t wear Kevlar to school today, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to need it. But we have to be careful in both our consumption of information and our validation of it. In an era of information abundance, it’s easy to get caught up in the cacophony, but loud is not always right.