In mid-December, school officials across the United States issued dire warnings—and some even canceled classes—in response to ambiguous, anonymous, threats made on the popular social media application TikTok of impending violence.
The "challenge"—as some social media users referred to it—was dubbed "National Shoot Up Your School Day" but did not name any particular school or district.
Despite any specificity to the threats, schools in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Wisconsin, and other places closed entirely, and where schools remained opened, parents kept kids home.
In retrospect, it is with some relief that parents and patrol officers can look back at the recent social media threat and see it for what it was: a warning.
It was like reveille rousting the troops from the barracks and into their boots.
A Wake-Up Call
Chris Hsiung is Chief of Police for the Mountain View (CA) Police Department and also a noted expert in law enforcement use of social media as an outbound communications vehicle, as well as an investigative tool in cases such as was seen in December of last year on TikTok.
"It's kind of a sign of the times of the age we live in," Hsiung told POLICE. "We can never ignore any of those threats. There's definitely some due diligence responsibility—law enforcement has to investigate and look at these. We all know innately that most of the times they could be hoaxes or jokes—it's just the nature of the virality of any sort of trend—but again, it's not something we can just ignore and turn a blind eye to."
Hsiung suggests that this begins with creating partnerships between parents and police to keep an eye on potential problems, and address them quickly when they become apparent.
"Here at mountain view, we see our digital community as just an extension of yet another beat that we need to be around in. That doesn't mean that the only time we're there is enforcement. I take a page out of the book of community policing. Why do we invest the time and energy to form relationships with our community? Because there's a huge payoff of trust and, and open lines of communication. "
Hsiung says that much in the same way that officers must be trained in the various nuisances of the differing neighborhoods in their jurisdiction, they must also be taught about the language of different social media platforms.
"In Mountain View, we see each platform as almost a different dialect," Hsiung says.
Hsiung says that it's not simply enough to be what he calls "digital native"—someone who just knows how to use the platforms. One has to know the intricacies of each type of social media platform, the type of people who tend to be on those unique services, and how their individual (and group) behavior can provide actionable law enforcement intelligence.
Learn to Fly
The problem then becomes, how does an agency approach ensuring that the officers who are not necessarily in charge of a social media presence—or even maybe even being at the school—to be conversant with those dialects? How do you train your officers to be sensitive to what those things might be indicating and respond appropriately?
Hsiung says that officers have the opportunity to get social media training on a variety of different levels, depending on the scope of their responsibility in that realm. He says that although there is really no national standard, there are many best practices for those who are charged with speaking on behalf of their department—the PIOs of the world—available at regional and national conferences.
What was once just a cottage industry of private purveyors of this type of training has become bustling business.
One of the first to make an international splash was the SMILE Conference—Social Media, the Internet, and Law Enforcement, which for about a decade as taught police on the ins-and-outs of community outreach, event management, and investigations in the social media space.
The IACP's Institute for Community-Police Relations presents excellent training and technical assistance on social media use for law enforcement. In fact, one such IACP training session will be offered at the end of this week (on January 14, 2022).
Hsiung says that Government Social Media is excellent for training and conferences. He notes also that those who get involved with the IACP's ongoing social media training through the IACP’s PIO Section benefit beyond the numerous training opportunities offered, including the vast network of expertise in the community.
"It's a very broad network of PIO that specialize—that are law enforcement PIOs, some that are sworn some that are not—and all connected through either email or text," Hsiung says. "It's a very small community where they reach out to each other from all corners of the country when there's something going on. They're very quick and open to share those learned experiences."
Hsuing adds, "You know how close the law enforcement family is. These people are just like that, you know—they'll bend over backwards at 24 hours a day to help each other out."
How Soon is Now?
During the entirety of the 2020 school year, most school kids—particularly those enrolled in public schools—were locked out of the classroom entirely, forced to do "remote learning" via Zoom and Google Classrooms.
In 2021 kids were brought back to in-person learning, but saddled with "social distancing" rules that kept any real socialization to a minimum, with mandatory masks and classrooms chockablock with individual tents and Plexiglas barriers.
To say that this new scholastic paradigm was disruptive to the social development of American youth is to understate matters in the extreme.
True, some kids truly thrived in the virtual classroom last year and dread going back to in-person learning—others however, foundered, flailed, and failed and benefited immensely from a "return to normalcy" in the fall/winter semester.
With 2022 now upon us—and the omnipresent threat of a sequel to Omicron looming in the dark recesses of unquiet adolescent minds—the possibility that the type of threat presented on TikTok in the final days of the Fall '21 school semester still lingers.
Law enforcement officers and officials will need to continue to train to prepare for this and any other potential eventuality.