Last month, TikTok was awash in rumors of an imminent school shooting set for Dec. 17. Skeptical Inquirer Deputy Editor Benjamin Radford investigated the phenomenon and learned that no law enforcement agencies found any of the threats credible. Rather, they were ambiguous and not tied to a specific person, place, or intent to act. And indeed, the day came and went without a school shooting.
Radford found that nearly every mention of the potential shootings had come in the form of warnings, shares, or with the user expressing their fear and worry. In other words, persons were communicating about the threats, not making them. Like earlier social media scares and their ancestors, the urban legend, the focus was on persons reacting to it, not on persons perpetrating it. We have seen this act before, in Internet warnings about T-shirts and zip ties being part of a human trafficking ploy, and in decades past with chilling tales of kidney thieves and drunk-driving victims embedded in car grills.
Radford wrote that the common folkloric themes between many urban legends and today’s social media hoaxes are that they mirror social anxieties, highlight threats to vulnerable populations, and reflect concern about technology gone bad.
Verge journalist Mia Sato interviewed University of Ontario Institute of Technology associate professor James Walsh, who told her, “Adult society has always been concerned about how new media content or new media technologies are going to corrupt young, impressionable minds.” Walsh points out that panic around a particular medium predates TikTok, previously occurring with comic books, board games, and music.
The difference now is that the misinformation gets out much faster and can me much harder to corral. Access to correct information is likewise readily available, but persons all too often to go with an untruth that fits their preconceived notions instead of accepting what to them is a less-familiar reality.