Law enforcement agencies and school districts across the country said they were aware of anonymous posts on short-form video app TikTok that alleged school shootings would take place in the US on Dec. 17 but concluded the threat wasn't credible.
The alleged threats prompted school districts across the country to take precautions. Police departments around the country also said they'd keep a closer eye on schools than they usually do.
The Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland tweeted that law enforcement officials investigated one threat and "determined that it originated in Arizona and is not credible."
TikTok said it's working with law enforcement but hasn't found "evidence of such threats originating or spreading via TikTok." CNET wasn't able to find TikTok videos that threatened violence at schools. However, multiple viral videos, including one with more than 2 million views, were posted by anonymous users who stated they were "praying for all schools" on Friday.
Two videos that CNET sent to TikTok are now unavailable. When asked if the company removed those videos, a TikTok spokesperson pointed to a Friday tweet saying the company was working to remove "alarmist warnings" that violate its misinformation policy.
"We've exhaustively searched for content that promotes violence at schools today, but have still found nothing," TikTok tweeted. "What we find are videos discussing this rumor and warning others to stay safe."
TikTok didn't immediately respond to questions about how it defines an "alarmist warning." Its misinformation policy says users aren't allowed to post "misinformation related to emergencies that induces panic."
Charles Herndon, a spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools, said reports about an alleged anonymous school shooting threat posted on TikTok "had been circulating among school systems and law enforcement offices throughout Maryland" before the district posted a safety advisory about the alleged threat.
"We posted the information to clarify the nature of the threat and to let parents know that the threat had been deemed non-credible by law enforcement," he said. Herndon couldn't point to a specific TikTok video that included the threat.
TikTok has rules against threatening or inciting violence and said it might suspend or ban accounts that do so. TikTok also encourages users to stop to think before they participate in online challenges and notes that some challenges are hoaxes. Search results for "school shooting" are blocked on TikTok.
"Media reports have been widespread and based on rumors rather than facts," TikTok tweeted Friday. "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."
Still, reports about alleged school shooting threats on TikTok and other social media platforms prompted schools to warn parents and ask the public to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
In Glenview, Illinois, the Glenview Police Department said it was "aware of a threat circulating on social media regarding school shootings and bomb threats at every school" nationwide. It said there wasn't any "credible information" the threat is related to a school in Illinois. Glenview police spokesman Sgt. Joel Detloff said the department didn't have any further comment beyond its social media post.
Officials with the Tooele County School District in Utah said it became aware of a "nationwide trend where students post a threat regarding gun violence in schools on social media."
"We believe it originated with TikTok, but it has been seen on Instagram and Facebook as well," district officials said in a post. Multiple outlets, the district said, stated the threat started off as a way for kids to skip school but "morphed into something much more disturbing."
The district cited several articles from local news outlets, including a report from CBS-affiliated television station KUTV saying police took into custody on Thursday a person who made a threat on social media that targeted Matheson Junior High School in Magna, Utah. The threat didn't appear to be credible.
ABC7 reported that Granite School District officials said an image had been shared on social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat in which a user writes about shooting up a school with the abbreviation GHS on Dec. 17. Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said, "Law enforcement was never able to source the original posting." He said the threat that referenced GHS was being shared on Snapchat but wasn't reported by the district because "it was a screenshot of an image of someone taking a picture of the threat off of TikTok." When asked how he knew the image was also shared on TikTok, he said "that was our best estimation."
Facebook, which recently rebranded itself to Meta, didn't have a statement. A spokeswoman for Snapchat said, "We are closely monitoring the disturbing threats apparently being made on TikTok and other platforms and are staying vigilant." The ephemeral messaging app will delete any threats of violence and "proactively escalate the threat to law enforcement," she said.
Marie Denson, communications director for Tooele County School District, said in an email she doesn't know if the social media companies pulled down the videos or posts that were raising concerns. Denson said she's typically received "a screenshot of the image, but not the original post." The screenshots, she said, don't include a username. CNET asked Denson what the screenshot said but didn't immediately receive a response.
"Referring to the TikTok statement, I believe keeping the videos up of people discussing the rumors and warning others to stay safe is also perpetuating the uncertainty of the situation," Denson said. "We have not had any actual threats, but it was the people spreading the videos/images of the threat with the comment of 'Stay safe' that has been creating the panic in our community. I think this needs to be addressed."
Videos in which users say they are praying for people who go to school on Dec. 17 could still be found on TikTok on Friday. Law enforcement in several states also reported arresting teens for making false reports about school shootings.
The Flagler County Sheriff's Office in Florida said in a press release Friday that deputies received reports about content on TikTok and Instagram referencing a potential school shooting on Dec. 17. The deputies arrested a 13-year-old who was accused of threatening Indian Trails Middle School on social media. The teenager told detectives he was "just joking" and didn't intend to do harm. He was eventually released to his parents, according to the sheriff's office.
"This has to stop! Kids – making threats of violence will only get you arrested," Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said in a statement. "Parents – talk to your children – now! Words have consequences. And saying it's a joke is not an alibi. We have zero tolerance for making threats and you will be arrested!"
The concerns raised by police and school districts come as social media sites face more scrutiny about the harms their platforms may be having on children. Officials at TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Google-owned YouTube have testified before US lawmakers about child online safety.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted Friday the "White House and federal law enforcement are closely monitoring threats of violence in schools circulating on social media."
"Today is another reminder of how many kids and parents live in fear of school shootings or violence," Psaki tweeted. "It is unacceptable."
TikTok has been under fire before for harmful challenges that encourage users to stuff Tide Pods in their mouths or to overdose on allergy medication. There have also been reports of challenges that turned out to be hoaxes. Fact-checking website Snopes, for example, reported in October there's little evidence to suggest that slapping a teacher was an actual challenge on TikTok despite media reports.