TikTok’s School Shooting Hoax Shows How Misinformation on the App Is Out of Control

Every day seems like it brings a new moral panic or hoax on TikTok. Earlier this year, it was “National Rape Day,” a “challenge” that supposedly originated among misogynists on TikTok but was later found to be totally baseless; last year, it was the Wayfair sex trafficking conspiracy theory, which alleged (based on no evidence) that the company was using its furniture as a front to traffic missing children (many of whom, it was later determined, were not actually missing in the first place).

The latest example of TikTok’s algorithm gone awry is the panic over “National Shoot Up Your School Day,” a supposed “challenge” encouraging kids to embark on shooting sprees across the country that later caused schools to be shut down.

As discussed on Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone’s podcast about TikTok and internet culture, videos on TikTok started circulating earlier this month warning students to avoid going to school on Dec. 17 due to the “challenge.” The videos sparked dozens of panic-stricken articles in local and national news outlets, including CNN and Fox News, as reported by Media Matters — yet few of these articles actually pinpointed the original threat, or identified any of the original videos warning about any of these attacks.

TikTok itself also released a statement saying that although it would be removing “alarmist warnings” about the trend from the platform — on the grounds that it violated its policies about misinformation — it had “exhaustively searched for content that promotes violence at schools today, but have still found nothing.” The Department of Homeland Security also issued a statement saying that it did not believe the National Shoot Up Your School Day challenge posed a credible threat, but by this time many terrified parents had pulled their kids from school.

Ultimately, the concerns over National Shoot Up Your School Day turned out to be baseless, in part because the threat likely didn’t exist to begin with. In another statement, TikTok blamed the media for inflating the threat, writing in a tweet, “Media reports have been widespread and based on rumors rather than facts, and we are deeply concerned that the proliferation of local media reports on an alleged trend that has not been found on the platform could end up inspiring real world harm.” It’s worth noting, however, that despite the platform’s vows to remove videos warning of the threat, Don’t Let This Flop cohost Ej Dickson found many examples proliferating on TikTok.

The nationwide frenzy over National Shoot Up Your School Day echoes a lot of previous moral panics on the app, such as the Devious Licks trend, which suggested that students all over the country were vandalizing school property to get views on TikTok, prompting many school districts to issue warnings about the trend, even though it had largely started out as a joke.

“The speed of the algorithm makes misinformation share very quickly, particularly if it’s incendiary like this and also if it’s posed as a public service,” Dickson said. “Because it’s so easy to just put up a video and say, like, ‘Hey, guys, you know, I’m just trying to, like, help out here. Please don’t go into school on December 17th.’ You get clout and you also make yourself look really good by sharing this safety warning. That tends to go really viral, really fast.”

On this week’s Don’t Let This FlopDickson and cohost Brittany Spanos discussed an ill-fated Biden/Jonas Brothers collab, as well as PageantTok in honor of the 100th anniversary of Miss America (you can read Dickson’s dispatch from the event here), secret fuckboy train enthusiasts, the “Gorgeous Gorgeous Girls Love Soup” meme, and Nancy Reagan as the original Throat GOAT.

DLTF is released Wednesdays on all audio streaming platforms, including Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon MusicStitcher and more.

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