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Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.Teacher associations, school districts, and law enforcement officials are so worried about a new viral TikTok challenge that they’re warning teachers and parents, and even writing to the head of the Chinese social media company.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
The only problem: There’s no evidence that the “Slap a Teacher” challenge they’re all worried about even exists.On Tuesday the California Teachers Association (CTA) issued a blunt two-word statement to its members: “Beware educators.” In a statement on the CTA website, President E. Toby Boyd outlined the threat.“One of the latest trends on social media is a ‘challenge’ that encourages students to physically attack (‘slap’) educators and video-record it.”Boyd said that “slapping a teacher, regardless of whether it results in injury, is assault and battery, and is completely unacceptable,” adding that “recording in a classroom or on other school property without permission is illegal.”The CTA linked the “Slap a Teacher” challenge to the same group of people conducting last month’s viral “Devious Licks” challenge, in which students stole or vandalized items of school property.The “Devious Licks” campaign was also referenced by Connecticut Attorney General Willian Tong in a letter to the head of TikTok. In the letter, Tong wrote: “In Connecticut, vandalism closed schools and the new ‘Slap a Teacher’ challenge may put educators at risk. I am urging TikTok to come to Connecticut to meet with educators and parents and commit to reforms that stop this reckless content.”
While the “Devious Licks” challenge was a real thing on TikTok, there is no evidence that the “Slap a Teacher” challenge is.“As far as I’m aware, not a single story has actually included evidence of an initial threat,” Abbie Richards, a disinformation researcher who focuses on TikTok, tweeted on Tuesday night. “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,” Richards added. To back up their claim, the CTA pointed to a recent case in South Carolina where, it said, one student carried out the challenge.The incident supposedly took place in the Lancaster School District in South Carolina. Last Friday the director of transport and safety Bryan Vaughn issued a statement on Facebook claiming that a student had attacked a teacher, and that it was part of the TikTok trend.“Sadly, we actually had an elementary student assault a teacher by striking her in the back of the head,” Vaughn said. However, there are several issues with this claim. The first is that elementary school students are typically too young to have a TikTok account, which requires users to be at least 13. Secondly, there was no mention that the assault in question was recorded and put on TikTok, and, as Richards points out, “filming is a prerequisite for a TikTok challenge.”
In Florida, Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, who oversees the fourth-largest school system in the U.S., warned students that the Miami-Dade County Public School district has “has zero-tolerance for such behavior and will investigate and prosecute to the full extent of the law.”
The claims about the “Slap a Teacher” challenge appear to have originated from a single online document that lists various school TikTok challenges for each month, which began with the “Devious Licks” challenge in September. However, there’s no evidence to show that this list is real or represents a TikTok trend.
Despite the complete lack of evidence that students are attacking teachers and posting videos of it online, numerous media outlets have run credulous stories about the “trend” citing the warnings from officials as evidence. On the video-sharing app itself, a number of teachers have posted videos warning their students not to try anything. Other users are simply using the claims to make fun of the situation:But there are no videos showing students actually striking their teachers—and a teacher being attacked in a classroom isn’t evidence that a TikTok trend is real. “That is simply confirmation bias,” Richards said.Part of the problem appears to be a lack of understanding of how TikTok works and how trends become viral on the platform. A single user cannot dictate what becomes a trend just by writing down a list of these trends.“TikTok has real threats (I would know, I study them professionally). But this particular threat appears to not be from teens,” Richards tweeted. “Seems like a whole lot of adults don’t know what a TikTok challenge is or how they work. And they didn’t ask anyone to explain it to them either.”The situation echoes a hoax that went viral in April based on a rumor that April 24 had been designated “National Rape Day”, even though there was no evidence to support the claims that men were spreading videos urging others to celebrate the day.TikTok has a lot of issues to deal with in relation to hate speech and disinformation—as Richards highlighted in research she published Tuesday that shows the app’s algorithm leads users from transphobic videos to far-right rabbit holes—and making claims about hoax challenges on the platform simply detract from the real issues.