“TikdOff” (School shooting rumor)

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.

“Hit for teacher” (TikTok challenge)

When my oldest children were toddlers and preschoolers, moral panics which targeted parents such as myself focused on the likes of satanic kidnappers and human traffickers. While there are rare instances of children being snatched by strangers, there are no recorded cases of it being done to funnel the victims to a diabolical den. And while human trafficking is real, it is usually done by someone who knows the family and grooms the child. It if not committed by someone camping out in a Wal-Mart restroom or scouring social media pages to find when school releases for the day so they can have a victim smorgasbord to choose from.

My children are now old enough that the moral panics are focused on them as the potential perpetrator, not the targeted. In an article for Vice, David Gilbert outlined a recent example, which holds that tween and teen TikTok consumers are being urged to slap their teacher and upload the videotaped results. Like the Luciferian lurkers, these pedagogue poundings are the stuff of urban legend.

For decades, these legends have been spread by school districts, law enforcement agencies, and local media doing shallow reporting. This trio seems to again be the panicky purveyors this time.

Gilbert cited California Teachers Association President Toby Boyd, who warned of this threat and the legal peril those who partake in it will find themselves in. Meanwhile, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong called for TikTok executives to outline what steps they are taking to halt this unruly usurpation of their platform.

This is not to say that no student has assaulted a teacher anywhere at all during this school year. But if this happened, it was likely the result of anger, immaturity, or loss of control, not a premeditated assault in hopes of gaining social media followers.

Gilbert interviewed Abbie Richards, whom he described as “a disinformation researcher who focuses on TikTok.” She said, “As far as I’m aware, not a single story has actually included evidence of an initial threat. And when I looked into this, I couldn’t find a single TikTok actually endorsing this behavior. All evidence indicates this is a hoax turned into reality by local news and school districts reacting to completely unconfirmed rumors.”

For example, the CTA highlighted an instance in Lancaster, S.C., where a TikTok teacher assault allegedly happened. The school district’s director of transport and safety, Bryan Vaughn, claimed an elementary school student perpetrated this as part of the TikTok challenge.

However, Gilbert noted some inconsistencies with this assertion. First, elementary school students are usually too young to have a TikTok account. Second, there was no mention that the assault was recorded and uploaded to TikTok, which is a necessary element of the alleged phenomenon. In other words, there may have been a student assault on a teacher, but it was unrelated to this putative challenge.

While urban legend origins are usually lost to time and space, the starting point may be known in this case: An online document which lists supposed monthly TikTok challenges. However, there is zero evidence this list exists outside of the document decrying it, and there is no reason to suspect it has ever been acted upon.

Indeed, there is a dearth of reports confirming tween and teen arrests for teacher assaults. Like most moral panics panics, no name is ever associated with these alleged occurrences. There are just breathless warnings about the happenings and the stiff consequences for those who perform them. Gilbert noted there are no videos showing students striking teachers, and even if there were, that would be insufficient evidence of a social media connection.

So this is just another hoax. Besides, if satanic kidnappings and human trafficking had been as widespread as advertised, there would be no teenagers left to take up this challenge.

“Fueling a rumor” (Rising gas prices)


Last post, we took the far left to task, so in the interest of being nonpartisan, we will today call out the right wing. Specifically, we will look at the insinuation that Joe Biden is responsible for rising gasoline prices. This is not a true partisan issue, as some left-wingers have blamed Republican presidents for pump pain, and there are plenty of conservatives who understand that the White House doesn’t set gas prices.

But those that do think that are the focus of today’s post. Expect for some negligible indirect influence, the commander in chief has nothing to do with whether one shells out two dollars or five for their gallon of mid-octane.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the key factors in the price gasoline consumers pay are: Taxes; crude oil cost; refining costs and profits; and distribution and marketing costs. The executive branch positions on infrastructure, civil liberties, national defense, Brussels sprouts appreciation proclamations, and anything else are nonfactors.

Writing for the New York Times, Richard Thaler explained that the U.S. consumes 20 percent of the world’s oil while owning just two percent of the reserves. That means the Middle East has us by the collective balls in perpetuity.

Thaler wrote that while this leaves the U.S. little say in the price of oil, the country could help itself by reducing consumption, using oil more efficiently, and prioritizing alternative fuel sources. But this would be tedious even if everyone was on board with the ideas. And that is not the case, as evidenced by the ostentatious souped-up trucks which double as moving platforms for oversized U.S. and Confederate flags (pick a side, dude).

And even those Americans not in the redneck subset love their automobiles. Further, alternative energy has seen only lukewarm results. Therefore, Thaler opines a better approach would be to gradually raise gasoline taxes to what they are in Western Europe. Because those taxes are high, fuel-efficient automobiles are far more common in Germany than in Georgia. The high taxes could be more than offset by the drop in demand.

So the one indirect impact a president could have would be to suggest charting this corrective course. But that would be political suicide in the United States. So they do nothing and we are left with the bizarre, indefensible spectacle of praising or condemning the executive branch for something beyond its control. We might as well blame it for my leaky faucet.

Thaler wrote his piece in 2012 but nothing has changed since then. For a specific look at today’s Biden Blame, we consider the writings of Jonathan Oher on thejostle.com. He highlights some social medial posts which insist the president is responsible for the rising prices and others which portend an even more frightening fuel future.

On Biden’s inauguration day, the average price for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. was $2.37. The posts that Oher cited had prices being 30 percent lower than that, but beyond the factual error is the mistaken insinuation as to who is to blame if the price becomes 4, 5, or even 6 dollars per gallon. Tellingly, none of the posters seem ready to heap praise on the president if the prices plummet to $1.50 a year from now.

The posts also play loose with the facts, showing prices a few days before and after inauguration day, but posting them from different parts of the country. Different locales will always pay different prices because of state taxes and distribution costs. Using this disparity to make the point would be like comparing the January temperatures in Minneapolis to those in Miami and blaming the president for global warming.

But, again, the key point here is not the actual price or the fluctuation but the party responsible.

The rise seen over the past two months is primarily due to a correction of gas prices that dipped during the pandemic, which created an artificial drop in demand. With the country somewhat opening up, full tanks are needed for these trips to the now-open malls, sports arenas, and restaurants.

Beyond fuel usage, crude oil cost plays a role, as the slick substance is likewise recovering from the pandemic. The cost went down more than 10 percent from January 2020 to January 2021. As that price corrects, gasoline prices will rise, as will the number of misinformed memes about who is responsible.

“Doesn’t add up” (Math racism)

While the loony far left dominates colleges, the rigid, absolute mathematics field would seem like an area that would provide a, how shall we say, safe space, from all this.

Alas, that is no longer the case, with the advent of, “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics.”

This pompous pamphlet thunderously asserts that the following are racist acts: Expecting students to meet benchmarks; Teaching math in a linear fashion; Focusing on how to get the right answer; Showing one’s work; And raising your hand to be recognized.

While ostensibly meant to somehow bolster Black children, the tract instead belittles them by assuming they should never be expected to gain mathematics proficiency. As Columbia University Linguistics and Music History Professor John McWhorter wrote, “It claims to be about teaching math while founded on shielding students from the requirement to actually do it. This is not pedagogy; it is preaching.”

Mathematics rests on explicitly-formulated definitions and facts. Were this not the case, bridges would collapse, planes would never go airborne, and monetary transactions would be a gibberish nightmares. It would be literally fatal if engineers and mechanics were to adopt such notions as new geometry, woke algebra, or calculus of color.

Math is the same everywhere. There is no German Geometry, Algerian Algebra, or French Fractions. There is no “White Way” of getting the answer and, in fact, the field serves as one of the world’s great equalizers. In math class, there are no essays where one can con their way to an answer without ever saying anything constructive. The answers, and how they are arrived at, are uniform worldwide. But this supposed math handbook, McWhorter notes, “says very little about how to actually teach kids of any ethnicity math. In fact it is detrimental to teaching math by urging the elimination of practices, like having students show their work.”

For while showing work is painted as an instance of White supremacy, the process is essential to correcting errors, it shows students understand the process, and it ensures the answer was not purloined from the kid one desk over.

As to arriving at the correct answer, this entirely reasonable and logical goal is considered a weapon in the White supremacist toolkit. This offensive, paternalistic absurdity assumes that most Black children are incapable of conquering the discipline.

Like McWhorter, Princeton mathematics professor Sergiu Klainerman is pained by this development: “I have witnessed the decline of universities and cultural institutions as they have embraced political ideology at the expense of rigorous scholarship. I had naively thought that the STEM disciplines would be spared from this ideological takeover.”

This now-seemingly complete takeover represents a soft totalitarianism where dissenters are not extra-judicially executed or exiled to Siberia, but are fired, doxed, picketed at home, and have a pound of their flesh extracted by the virtual mob.

Nothing in historical or contemporary mathematics suggests that it should be done in a different way based on geography or that it is race-dependent. To the contrary, math enjoys a long and rich history across the cultures, with major developments and contributions from Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, and Arabs. Schools throughout the world teach the same principles and math serves as a universal language.

During international sports competitions, players on both sides may speak nary a word of their opponent’s language, but they are bonded by common rules they all follow. Similarly, race is no barrier to mathematics and this equality makes it the antithesis of supremacism.

“A lot of bull” (Pit bull hysteria)

Pete the Pup of Our Gang fame and Spuds MacKenzie were both pit bulls, a designation which refers not to specific breed but a collection of related ones. These include the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American bully.


A Little Rascals sidekick and a party-loving beer pitchdog contrasts mightily with the bloodthirsty, intimidating image of pit bulls held by many and promoted by some media
.


But while pit bulls have been implicated in fatal attacks, the notion that they by and large are dangerous is a misnomer. Some pit bulls were bred by unscrupulous sadists for bull-baiting and dogfighting, while others were bred to hone their friendliness, loyalty, and attentiveness.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association found that from 1979 to 1998, 238 Americans were killed by 403 dogs, with pits bulls and Rottweilers accounting for more than half of the tragedies.


However, the authors noted that the study failed to account for the antics and personalities of the owners. Some societal outcasts prefer the image and street cred that comes with owning an animal with a dangerous reputation and they are only too happy to promote this. So while there may be a correlation between dog bites and some breeds, there may not be causation.


The study also fails to adjust for the percentage of American dogs that each breed represents. Further, reliable numbers are unavailable because the American Kennel Club registry includes only canines whose masters have registered them, and that is primarily done by serious owners who prefer purebred, pedigreed show dogs.


Additionally, fatalities are not the only factor when assessing dog dangers. Dunning wrote that a study in Pediatrics found there were 30,000 dog bites for every fatal dog mauling. German shepherds were the most bitey breed and there are no statistics to support how likely pit bulls are to bite relative to other breeds. In fairness, however, pit bull attacks may inflict more damage or be more likely to be fatal than most breeds.


The Pediatrics study also showed that dogs are more likely to chomp away if they are male, unneutered, less than five years old, weigh more than 45 pounds, live with elementary school age children, and kept chained outdoors. All those are more likely factors to dog danger than whether the animal is a pit bull.

“Indolent bystander” (Kitty Genovese)

When an assailant raped and murdered New Yorker Kitty Genovese in 1964, The New York Times reported that dozens of people witnessed the attack and did nothing to stop it.

But in the early 2000s, another Times piece found the claims in the 1964 article were exaggerated and sensationalized. Probably less than 10 people had knowledge of the attack, with three of them intervening.

But at the time, the tragedy and the supposed apathy that surrounded it, led to a burgeoning field looking into a possible Bystander Effect, including the Smoke Filled Room study of 1968. Social psychology researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley ran a series of experiments testing their hypothesis that when other people are around, bystanders are less likely to intervene.

In the best-known of their studies, the pair recruited subjects to fill out a questionnaire. The first group consisted of subjects who answered questionnaire by themselves, while the second group involved several persons filling out the form.

A few minutes into the experiment, thick smoke pored through a vent. Those by themselves, for the most part, left the room immediately and informed Latane and Darley.


Subjects in the second group, however, responded differently. Only one was an actual subject, the other persons were in on the experiment and had been instructed to take no action. Most of the time, the subject likewise failed to act.


In all, 75 percent of solo subjects intervened in the smoke, while just 10 percent of the subjects surrounded by confederates did. This seemed to confirm Latane and Darley’s hypothesis. Similar experiments yielded similar results, though not all of them as pronounced. But the differences were consistent enough that the duo concluded that there was a casual effect to the number of persons present and the likelihood of intervention.


But then in 2019, publications reported that the Bystander Effect was largely nonexistent, that a review of public conflicts showed that most people do intervene.


This research focused on public altercations captured on video. More than 1,200 conflicts were examined, in Lancaster, UK, Amsterdam, and Cape Town. In each city, intervention occurred nine times out of 10. Further, stepping in was most likely to occur if there were more bystanders.


As to the opposite conclusion being reached in the Smoke Filled Room studies, that can be explained by the study’s flawed methodology. Other than a lone subject, participants were instructed to not act. Had smoke began filling a room of 20 persons not in on the charade, some of them would have almost certainly taken action, as the results of the 1,200 public altercations demonstrate.


Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote that a better-designed experiment would have had no confederates and, indeed, that would have produced a more authentic result. The test, he noted, served as an experiment on peer pressure, but not the bystander effect it was presuming to examine.

“It’s not a wash” (Brainwashing)

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Today we will examine a moral panic that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. The terrifying tales centered on persons being brainwashed and led into cults, crime, or other undesirable destinations. Many times, those telling the tale were the same ones selling or touting the cure: Deprogramming.

The difference between influence and brainwashing is that the latter seeks to have the victims completely dedicate themselves to a cause or position that they previously had been ambiguous to or even opposed. Additionally, washing of the brain is forceful. Someone showing up at your front door to sell you rain gutter protection or asking you to sign a petition to bring back the high school marching band will take no for an answer. Someone intent on brainwashing will not and, in fact, will seek to control most aspects of your life.

Writing for Skeptoid, Dunning noted that even the Hare Krishnas fall short of brainwashing since they attempt influence, not intimidation. He explained, “They convince intelligent adults to shave their heads, wear robes, and forego worldly possessions. That’s pretty radical. And their recruitment methods are absolutely systematic. However, they generally don’t force this onto anyone, so it’s not brainwashing.”

By contrast, he continued, the Scientology organization Sea Org qualifies as brainwashing since it “is notorious for confining and isolating new members, imposing uniforms, and cutting off ties to family and friends. It is radical, systematic, and forced.” Other examples would include Patty Hearst and U.S. POWs during the Korean War.

So it has genuinely occurred, although as we will see shortly, its effects were short-lived. Moreover, most supposed brainwashings would more accurately be called instances of wayward or curious youth trying to find their way and place in the world. 

Questioning a tenet of one’s faith or political leanings that one has been imbued with is healthy and checking out new groups or beliefs is common. Even if one comes to embrace “the other side,” that is part of life’s journey and there is no need to be deprogrammed. In fact, attempting that on an adult who has made the choice may qualify as kidnapping and, ironically, as brainwashing.

According to Dunning, the concept of deprogramming was the brainchild of Ted Patrick, who claimed his son had been consumed by a cult, and Patrick was one of many deprogrammers who were convicted for their activities.

Beyond its often-illicit nature, deprogramming is likewise unnecessary. That’s because brainwashing’s impact on victims is temporary, if it exists at all.

Dunning noted that two experts who studied the U.S. POW brainwashing, psychiatrist Robert Lifton and psychologist Edgar Schein, found that most of the victims had merely gone through the motions of saying and doing what their tormenters wanted so as to avoid further torture. The few who came to believe in communism stopped doing so upon release. Similarly, many deprogramming subjects also just went through the motions and gave the desired responses so as to put an end to it.

In summary, brainwashing is nothing to worry about unless it is followed by a deprogramming. 

“Allergic to the truth” (Benadryl Challenge)

In August, an Oklahoma teen reportedly died of a Benadryl overdose, said to be the tragic result of a social media dare to get high by popping the allergy pills.

Did this happen and, if so, how widespread is the trend? Is this something we should be terrified of or is a more measure response justified?

According to Reason’s Scott Shackford, the Benadryl Challenge has elements of truth. Three Texan teens, being young and quarantined, did have an emergency room excursion after overdosing on the over-the-counter medication. The stupidly curious (or curiously stupid) trio were treated at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth. The facility claimed the idea came from a TikTok video whose producer promised that this misadventure would get users high and induce hallucinations. In another case, a 14-year-old girl was treated after popping one pill for each of her years on Earth. 

TikTok officials confirmed to the Fort Worth Star-Telegramthat the company had removed content for encouraging the practice.

Later that month, KFOR and the New York Post reported that 15-year-old Chloe Phillips had died, with a deleted Facebook post from her great aunt blaming the challenge.

However, the reports lack any attribution from medical professionals confirming that as the cause. Further, other than the one deleted post, there were no quotes from family members suggesting that’s why the girl died. KFOR did interview Scott Schaeffer, director of the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information, who explained how a Benadryl overdose can cause heart problems, seizures, and hallucinations. But there was nothing to tie that into the Phillips tragedy. Schaeffer later told Reason he had no reason to tie her death or any other to any Benadryl Challenge.

That leaves us with two instances in which a total of four youth sought medical treatment for an intentional overdose. None of them died. That has not stopped a moral panic from ensuing about a deadly trend, which by all available evidence, seems to be neither.

“Blown save” (Missing children)

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Each year about 800,000 US children are reported missing. Around 99.98 percent are found safe, ran away, or were taken by a noncustodial family member. About 200 are abducted by strangers. Zero are snatched by billionaire-funded satanic cannibals.

Nevertheless, QAnon and its allies interpret any missing child report to be evidence of another youngster being swallowed into a nightmarish black hole of blood-drinking, flesh-eating, and gang rape perpetrated by members of the Deep State, which once meant Hollywood and Democratic leaders, but now means anyone with whom the believer disagrees.

The panic is a continuation of a perpetual fretting which ignores that the 21st Century in the Western World is the safest ever time and place to be a child. But it adds the sinister twist which allows the proponent to congratulate themselves on rooting out an evil. The conspiracy theory is more than just paranoia and hysteria, it is also having deleterious effects on genuine attempts to #SaveTheChildren.

Any child abducted by a stranger is cause for utmost concern and all available resources should be utilized to get the victim home safely. But this is best done on a case-by-case basis, not through launching baseless assertions that the abducted are now part of a Soros-funded pedophile ring.

Meanwhile, those with such concerns do not extend their passion to combating poverty, funding inner city schools, or reversing policies that cage children and kill Tamir Rice.

They also seem OK with police on campus, which creates a literal school-to-prison pipeline where activities as innocuous as drinking soda in class and talking out of turn leave pre-teens jailed and with a lifetime criminal record. These grave overreactions disproportionately impact minority students.

Focusing in these issues is a much better use of time than promoting QAnon, Pizzagate, and Wayfair conspiracy theories, which hold that President Trump is waging a heroic and solitary battle against satanic child molesters permeating Hollywood,  Capitol Hill, Silicon Valley, and anyone else the proponent despises.

Believers are taking action in the form of vigilante attacks and they are also wasting valuable resources. Crusaders who have spent years working for organizations that fight human trafficking and child abuse have been inundated with theorists touting these absurd claims and demanding that they take action, or else.

One such worker, Brandy Zadrozny, detailed this is a piece for MSN and Rochelle Keyhan, the CEO of the anti-trafficking nonprofit Collective Liberty, has been bombarded with such messages.

Before QAnon adherents took over the #SaveTheChildren hashtag, they invented the conspiracy theory that the furniture site Wayfair was trafficking missing children, using a code whereby overpriced shelves and pillow were euphemisms for specific types of kids.

Collective Liberty, which was inundated with Wayfair tips, put out a statement explaining that the exorbitant prices were due to search engine optimization gone wrong, and not proof of a Satanic cabal. This was necessary because, as Keyhan explained, “The extreme volume of these contacts has made it more difficult for the trafficking hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help.”

So when QAnon believers post their hashtags and urge action, they are, in fact, doing nothing to help #SaveTheChildren.

“Fright pattern” (Wind turbines)

TURBINE

Birds often slam into buildings and powerlines but some people consider wind turbines an even more egregious threat, with their enormous blades whirring overhead.

However, these kill far less birds than almost any other contributor, and the strategic placement of wind farms can make the threat even less pronounced.  

Objections to wind turbines largely come from two groups: Well-meaning but misinformed bird lovers; and ill-meaning, informed fossil fuel fans who show an isolated, disingenuous interest in wildlife conservation in this one instance.

The key question is how many birds are being sliced and diced. Are we talking avian apocalypse or a much lower number that represents an infinitesimal fraction of feathered flyers we lose to buildings and power lines? Studies show it’s the latter, as wind turbines are responsible for the smallest number of bird deaths among all manmade causes.

There are about 50,000 wind turbines in the country and they cause an average of five annual bird deaths apiece, or a quarter of a million birds every year. The biggest killer of birds in the U.S. are members of the cat family, who take out a whopping 2.4 billion birds each year. Collisions with building windows cause the demise of another billion.

Crunching these numbers, we find that the percentage killed by wind turbines is so microscopic that it could be rounded down to zero.

Of the relatively few killed by turbines, the vast majority are songbirds, which are experiencing no population issues. Of greater concern are raptors since they exist in smaller numbers, have much lower reproductive rates, and have flight patterns that make them more likely to be near wind turbines.

Wind farm operators can be slapped with heavy fines when their product kills a bird, although since it’s impractical to avoid all deaths, a limited number of the unintentional kills are legally permissible. Whether out of concern for wildlife or the ledger book, wind farm operators embrace technology aimed at avoiding these fatal encounters.

For example, most California Condors are tagged so that when one approaches a wind farm, the turbine detects a radio transmission, which shuts it down.

A similar system employs skyward cameras to keep a lookout for eagles, with a shutdown procedure in place if the birds are in jeopardy. Radar, light, sound, and thermal cameras are additional allies in this ornithological protection plan.

But – cliché alert – an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure. The best idea is to placing wind farms away from bird migration routes and condor populations, and this trend has been embraced.