A hoax warning users on TikTok that December 17 would be a nationwide school shooting day went viral, enabled by the platform’s inconsistent moderation practices and news outlets’ sensationalized reporting.
On December 16, TikTok claimed that though it was “working with law enforcement to look into warnings about potential violence at schools,” there was no evidence of nationwide school shooting threats “originating or spreading” on its platform. Yet, warnings of the unfounded threat had gone viral on TikTok, creating nationwide panic -- seemingly in violation of TikTok’s own community guidelines, which promise to remove “misinformation related to emergencies that induces panic.”
The next day, TikTok released another statement admitting that it had found “videos discussing this rumor and warning others to stay safe” and reiterating its promise to “remove alarmist warnings” that violate its misinformation policy. But the damage was already done. Too little, too late.
In the same December 17 statement, TikTok’s communications team attempted to redirect blame for the spread of the hoax onto media outlets, writing, “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.”
While media reports contributed, TikTok can't escape blame. The platform waited to address the school shooting hoax until the day it was rumored to happen, rather than preemptively addressing the misinformation before it induced mass panic. Viral videos promoting the hoax were still available on the night of December 16 without even so much as an informational banner warning users about their veracity.
Although TikTok’s failure to act created the conditions for widespread panic, the hoax’s off-platform spread can be largely attributed to negligent media reports that gave validity to the unfounded claim of a threat without verifying the information. The hoax even made its way to cable news, appearing on CNN and Fox News, and caused a number of schools to close on December 17. This isn’t the first time overly sensationalized reporting on TikTok hoaxes has recklessly spread nationwide panic.
There are real consequences that result from reporting fear-based hoaxes as fact. The December 17 hoax parallels that of the nonexistent April 24 “National Rape Day” that caused mass hysteria online earlier this year. That claim became so viral (because of both TikTok’s poor moderation practices and irresponsible reporting) that it terrified an 11-year-old girl into bringing two knives into school to protect herself.
Videos from December 17 circulating on TikTok show empty school classrooms and hallways, students being picked up early, and police officers patrolling campuses, demonstrating the real-world effects of a fear-based hoax.