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Explained: The ‘rumoured’ shooting threat on TikTok that is spooking schools in US

Districts in the states of California, Texas, Minnesota, and Missouri said schools would be shut on Friday, local media reported.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 18, 2021 8:08:44 am
School officials in Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Montana, New York and Pennsylvania announced stepped-up security for students and teachers. (Representational Image)

Several schools around the United States cancelled classes or announced an increased presence of police on campus following the reported appearance of anonymous posts on TikTok warning of shooting and bomb threats on Friday (December 17).

Districts in the states of California, Texas, Minnesota, and Missouri said schools would be shut on Friday, local media reported. On Thursday, school officials in Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Montana, New York and Pennsylvania announced stepped-up security for students and teachers, the Associated Press reported.

The purported threats, circulating in the aftermath of the deadly school shooting in Michigan, had many educators on edge, the AP report said. Four students were killed and six students and a teacher were injured in the shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford Township in Michigan on November 30. A 15-year-old student at the school named Ethan Crumbley was charged as an adult for crimes including murder and terrorism.

The threats are vague, and not credible.

Media reports in the US described the reported threats as vague and anonymous. A report in The Verge said there is “little evidence that the threats are credible — or even exist”. Police had spoken of a “trend referencing the possibility of shootings or bombings on December 17th”, the report said, “but it’s not clear how many have seen a specific threat or a threat against their schools in particular”.

The Verge report quoted just one confirmed instance of a police department actually viewing one of the purported threatening messages. However, the report said, police in Gilroy, California, had subsequently determined that the initials mentioned in the social media post was actually about a school different from the one that was initially thought to be under threat.

The Verge said that the Los Angeles School Police Department had identified who had posted it, and determined that the person was not a “credible threat”. Gilroy police didn’t say whether the post was made on TikTok, the report said.

The AP report quoted above said that the Michigan State Police had said in a statement on Thursday that it was unaware of any credible threats.

The Verge report said that Baltimore County Public Schools (Maryland) said on Twitter that “law enforcement agencies have investigated… an anonymous threat posted on TikTok targeting all schools in the United States”, and “determined that it originated in Arizona and is not credible”.

But there is an “abundance of caution”.

Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey said on Twitter that “no known specific threats” existed, but the state would nonetheless stay “prepared”.

“While there are no known specific threats against New Jersey schools, the safety of our children is our highest priority and we will work closely with law enforcement to monitor the situation and remain prepared,” Murphy tweeted.

TikTok itself denied that any threats had been delivered via the video-sharing social networking platform, but said it took even “rumoured threats” seriously.

“We handle even rumored threats with utmost seriousness, which is why we’re working with law enforcement to look into warnings about potential violence at schools even though we have not found evidence of such threats originating or spreading via TikTok,” the company posted on Twitter.

Many users replying to the tweet mocked the vagueness of the statement, but some others posted communication that they said they had received from their wards’ schools about the threat.

The AP report reproduced an email sent to parents by administrators of the Oak Park and River Forest school in Illinois: “We are writing to inform you and not alarm you… We have been made aware of a nationwide viral TikTok trend about ‘school shooting and bomb threats for every school in the USA even elementary’ on Friday, December 17.”

The AP said that the administrators had said that local police would increase their presence around schools “out of an abundance of caution”.

Is TikTok liable for the alleged threats?

Probably not. Under Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides Internet technology companies like TikTok legal “safe harbour” protection from liability for content posted by users on their platforms.

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” says this section.

The AP report quoted Jeff Kosseff, an expert on cybersecurity law, as saying: “It would be unlikely that TikTok would be liable if there were actually to be a shooting… Even without 230, there are just a lot of barriers against being able to bring a cause of action against the medium on which a threat was posted.”

But Kosseff, who the report said had got a warning about the TikTok challenge on Thursday from his daughter’s school district in Arlington, Virginia, also told the AP that TikTok could, if it wanted, do “the right thing” and “take down harmful content”.

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