Slap a Teacher: From TikTok Hoax to Media-fueled Panic
In late September 2021, schools across the US were reeling from the aftermath of the #deviouslicks TikTok trend that challenged teens to steal school property1 when administrators raised alarm bells about a new emerging TikTok trend, dubbed “slap a teacher.” On Facebook, parents, administrators, and police officers began sharing a list of unknown origin outlining 12 allegedly TikTok-inspired acts – one per month – that students would commit that school year. These included such challenges as flipping off the school office, kissing your friend's girlfriend, or making physical contact with a teacher. There was no evidence that this challenge actually existed or was spreading on TikTok, a fact TikTok routinely emphasized. Still, confusion and fear spread in schools throughout the country. Worries were exacerbated by press coverage that connected real-world school violence with the alleged “slap a teacher” TikTok challenge, often without investigating the veracity of such claims. Facebook seized on the unfounded panic over rival TikTok to promote negative publicity about teens using the app, spurring more credulous news coverage of “slap a teacher” and more critical press against TikTok. This case documents how a bit of viral misinformation spread by concerned adults and amplified by organic press coverage became a media manipulation campaign (in Stage 3 of the media manipulation life cycle) when one social media platform responded by exploiting the “slap a teacher” news cycle to its strategic advantage.
- 1 Kim Bellware “Students are destroying bathrooms, swiping school supplies in latest TikTok challenge gone awry,” Washington Post , September 17, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/09/17/devious-licks-tik-…
Stolen face masks, swiped paper towels, missing soap, even absent toilets – across the United States, many schools started the 2021 school year confronting an eruption of property theft.
The nationwide stealing trend began with a post on the video-sharing app TikTok of stolen surgical masks on the account @jugfourelias on Sep. 1, 2021. “A month into school..absolutely devious lick. Should have brought a mask from home” the video was captioned. In this context, Urban Dictionary defines “licks” as stealing something that reaps “an acceptable, impressive and rewarding payday.”1 For @jugfourelias the payday, presumably, is the looted masks. In one week, @jugfourelias’s video received 239,000 views on TikTok,2 and its spread inspired other students to steal additional items from schools and to post about their “devious lick.”3
In addition to paper towels, soaps from dispensers, and toilets, students also stole hand dryers, teachers’ desks and even keys to a school bus.4 These thefts, some of which would be considered felony larceny, were all documented on TikTok. As the trend gained popularity on TikTok, the payday of the “lick” was no longer the stolen item itself; it was the social media engagement that students received when they posted TikToks of their school thefts. Tik Tok removed the original #deviouslick video on Sep.13, 2021.5
Devious Licks was, in other words, a viral TikTok challenge – a call to do something, like a dance routine or a prank, that is recorded and uploaded onto TikTok. Examples of other viral TikTok challenges include the Milk Crate challenge6 or the Flip the Switch challenge.7 As the items stolen in the #deviouslicks challenge became progressively higher stakes, TikTok users who posted videos of their theft began to change the name of the challenge from “#deviouslick” to “despicable” or “diabolical lick.”
- 1Nikki Stixx, “Lick,” Urban Dictionary, January 18, 2021, https://perma.cc/6BVR-9PE4.
- 2Phillip Hamilton, “Devious Licks Trend,” Know Your Meme, 2021, https://perma.cc/6BVR-9PE4.
- 3“#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 4MitchellReacts, “Devious Licks in School Compilation! (stealing items from school)” YouTube, September 11, 2021, https://perma.cc/Z5RG-WM42.
- 5TikTok Communications (@TikTokComms), “We Expect Our Community to Create Responsibly - Online and IRL. We’re Removing Content and Redirecting Hashtags & Search Results to Our Community Guidelines to Discourage Such Behavior. Please Be Kind to Your Schools & Teachers. Https://T.Co/MIFtsYwFRb,” Twitter, September 15, 2021, https://perma.cc/L7JU-ETZQ.
- 6Timothy Bella, “The Viral Milk Crate Challenge Has Left People Injured. Doctors Are Begging Them to Stop.,” Washington Post, August 24, 2021, https://perma.cc/TD96-EKEQ.
- 7Carl Lamarre, “Drake’s ‘Flip the Switch’ Challenge Explained,” Billboard (blog), March 9, 2020, https://perma.cc/85YH-UVD6.
Schools across the US responded to these incidents by making school-wide announcements, reporting students to their parents, and promising disciplinary action and even arrests for the thefts.1 TikTok banned the challenge, including its accompanying hashtag #deviouslick and all related variations, on Sep. 15, 2021, for violating the site’s Community Guidelines. By that point, the hashtag had over 235 million views.2
Just a few weeks later, school administrators heard a rumor that an even worse TikTok trend was coming their way – one promoting not theft in schools but violence.
- 1Kalhan Rosenblatt, “TikTok Removes ‘devious Licks’ Videos of Students Allegedly Stealing School Property,”NBC News, September 15, 2021, https://perma.cc/L63D-CUNP.
- 2Nicole Pelletiere, “15-Year-Old Student’s Arrest Linked to Banned TikTok Challenge after Police Locate Video of Crime,” Fox News (Fox News, September 17, 2021), https://perma.cc/KF5G-269V.
Stage 1: Manipulation campaign planning and origins
In late September 2021, a teacher in the Kalinga Unified school district in Fresno County, California, received a month-by-month calendar from a student that appeared to outline a list of challenges on TikTok for each month of the 2021-2022 school year.1 For example, November’s challenge was to “kiss your friend's girlfriend at school,” according to the list of pranks, while January was to “jab a breast.” May was “ditch day” and June was to “flip off the school office.”
One “prank” in particular was reportedly alarming to the teacher: the challenge for the coming month of October was a variation of “slap or smack” a school staff member.
It is not documented how the teacher in California received this list, exactly – whether it was printed out, digitally, or screenshotted. What is known is that she soon shared it with the superintendent of her school district, Lori Villanueva. Neither Villanueva nor the teacher asked too many questions about the calendar of challenges. Villanueva later stated in an interview2 that she did not want to conduct an investigation into its origins that might expose the student in question. And because the Kalinga district’s seven schools had been hit hard by the “devious lick” challenge, she was alarmed by an apparent new challenge. Villanueva said later that she passed the list to other adults and administrators. She also heard from other principals that they had received versions of the same list.
According to later reporting on this alleged challenge, no one apparently checked on TikTok to see the original list for themselves or to verify whether such challenges were in fact underway. TaSC has found no evidence that this “slap a teacher” list or the challenges it contained were ever viral or even present on TikTok. When asked later by Gimlet Media, an early debunker of the “slap a teacher” challenge, why Villanueva would share an unverified document without investigation, she replied: “It’s better to be prepared and aware than surprised than sorry.”
Threats of violence hit a nerve in schools. According to a March 2022 American Psychological Association survey of some 15,000 US teachers, administrators, and other school staffers, 14 percent of teachers reported at least one incident of physical violence by a student, as did 15 percent of administrators and 22 percent of other school staff. Forty percent of school administrators told Pew Research Center they had been being verbally abused or threatened by parents. One-third of teachers had been verbally assaulted and/or threatened with violence by students during the past school year.3
In just one month – March 2022 – a 14-year old boy in Washington state was charged with attempted assault after allegedly putting his belt around a teacher’s neck; a Florida teacher was hospitalized after an attack by a 5-year-old student; and students in De Soto, Texas, threw chairs at a substitute teacher.4
“Slap a teacher” didn’t exist on TikTok, but the rumor of violence spread on other platforms regardless – and gained the attention of school administrators and teachers nationwide. One reason for this nationwide panic was because of the very real student-on-teacher violence that occurs routinely across the US.
- 1 “#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 2“#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 3S.D. McMahon et al., “Violence Against Educators and School Personnel: Crisis During COVID Policy Brief” (American Psychological Association), https://perma.cc/EC3Q-QYHD.
- 4Daniella Silva, “A ‘crisis of Violence’ Is Unfolding in Our Classrooms, a Major Survey of School Staffers Reveals,” NBC News, March 17, 2022, https://perma.cc/A793-SQ93.
Stage 2: Seeding the campaign across all social platforms and the web
In the morning of Sep. 22, 2021, at some point after that Kalinga district teacher had received the alleged calendar of upcoming TikTok school challenges, a California school principal posted the calendar to a private Facebook group comprised of school principals.1 By 5 p.m. that day, the calendar had also been shared on a Facebook page for school resource officers – police officers posted to schools.
One member of that law enforcement group was an influential Idaho school resource officer named David Gomez. Gomez later told Gimlet Media that he received the list from a drug-recognition Facebook page for school officers and from parents who sent him screenshots. While he was skeptical of the list's validity, he had heard reports of assaults related to the challenge. So, like Villanueva, Gomez believed that the mere possibility of scheduled violence merited warning parents.2 Gomez typed out the entire list (as opposed to taking a screenshot or snapping a picture of the list as he received it) and posted it at 10 p.m. to his popular Facebook page, called “Officer Gomez.”3
On the Officer Gomez page, Gomez shares “the truth about youth.” It is public and viewable by all, and has over 42,000 followers. Gomez is considered an influencer for parents, teachers, and concerned adults on the dangers of social media and children of the internet.4
The wording on Gomez’s retyped list differs from the one that Superintendent Villaneuva received in notable ways. It is, essentially, a PG-13 version. Gomez’s list had “October - smack a staff member on the backside,” while Villanueva’s list said “smack a staff ass.” Rather than “November - Kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school,” Villaneuva’s list had “November - kiss your dude’s girl at skool.” Gomez wrote that December was “December - “Deck the halls and show your b**** ” in school halls. (Thinking this means boobs or butt),” but Villanueva’s list described the month as “December - deck the halls and show us your balls at school halls.”
The differing versions of this list may have been edits designed to make teen slang more comprehensible to older audiences. But the changes made it more difficult to find the original list or its creator – something Gomez did not make any effort to do. Nor did he include any caveats about the validity of the list when he posted it on his Facebook page. The post, which opens with a reference to the devious lick challenge, simply lays out “one version of the upcoming challenges for TikTok users,” expresses concern about the severity of some of the pranks, and suggests parents “talk to your kids about these challenges and their consequences.”5
- 1 “#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 2Palmer Haasch, “Schools Are Cautioning against a ‘slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge, but It Appears to Be a Rumor Spread on Facebook,” Insider, October 6, 2021, https://perma.cc/WPU8-4S9J.
- 3“#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 4Officer Gomez (@deputygomez), Facebook, 18 July 2022, https://perma.cc/ZA84-4T5S
- 5Officer Gomez, “Upcoming TikTok Challenges:,” Facebook, September 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/N5ZV-2YP6.
The reposted calendar of TikTok challenges quickly became one of the most engaged-with posts on Gomez’s page. By Oct. 8, 2021, it had received 596 comments and 1.3K shares.1
On Oct. 1, 2021 – about two weeks after the Fresno teacher became aware of the alleged TikTok challenge – the Lancaster (South Carolina) County School District Safety & Transportation Facebook page posted about the “slap a teacher” challenge. The post, entitled, “Warning to Parents and What Occurred Today as a Result of the TikTok Challenge,” described the list and warned: “Sadly, we actually had an elementary student assault a teacher by striking her in the back of the head. This type of behavior just like theft and destruction of property is not a prank. It’s criminal behavior.”2
This message directly attributes the violence suffered by the teacher to the TikTok challenge. TaSC could not verify this connection. There were no reports of the incident being filmed or posted on TikTok – a necessity to participate in a TikTok trend. Nor was this incident covered in local media. Furthermore, the minimum age requirement on TikTok is 13 – older than most elementary school students. Although numerous kids under the age of 13 have TikTok accounts, the platform claims that underage users make up less than 1 percent of global users on the app.3
- 1Officer Gomez, “Upcoming TikTok Challenges:,” Facebook, September 22, 2021, https://perma.cc/N5ZV-2YP6.
- 2Lancaster County School District Safety & Transportation -, “A Warning to Parents and What Occurred Today as a Result of the Tik Tok Challenge,” Facebook, October 1, 2021, https://perma.cc/Y5AB-XCJS.
- 3 Cristina Criddle, “TikTok Removes More than Seven Million Suspected Under-Age Accounts,” BBC News, June 30, 2021, https://perma.cc/2BMR-YZLZ.
Similar claims continued to make news throughout the fall of 2021. In Springfield, Missouri, a teacher was reportedly slapped by a student in October during an assault that, according to local news channels KY3 news1 and Fox2Now,2 school leaders believed to have been inspired by the TikTok challenge. However, neither outlet asserted that the incident was recorded or posted on TikTok, and the student who attacked the teacher is not on record claiming that they had done so because of the TikTok challenge. Both of these facts cast significant doubt as to whether the violent incident had any connection to TikTok.
In Louisiana, Larrianna Jackson, 18, was charged in October 2021 with felony battery of a schoolteacher after a video on Instagram and Snapchat showed her attacking a high school teacher.3 That video was shared on a local news story on wwltv.com on Oct. 7 and tweeted by the reporter, with no mention of TikTok.4 The video was then uploaded to Twitter by the right-wing pseudonymous Twitter account @libsoftiktok the same day, according to screenshots from the internet archiving service WayBack Machine,5 exposing this local news video to the account's audience of over 1 million. (@libsoftiktok was later the subject of a WaPo investigation6 that found it routinely pushed right-wing talking points into the social media discourse, often with the intention of gaining media attention.7 The same day @libsoftiktok posted the Louisiana assault video, the account also posted a video of a teacher espousing liberal progressive views, to which a follower replied, “Where is the TikTok “Slap a Teacher” challenge when you need it?”)
- 1KY3 Staff and Lauren Schwentker, “TikTok Trend: Springfield Public Schools Staff Member Slapped by Student for Viral Video,” KY3 News, October 5, 2021, https://perma.cc/PS89-UZDD.
- 2Becky Willeke, “Students Involved in ‘Slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenges Could Face Charges,”FOX 2 NOW, October 11, 2021, https://perma.cc/PH8F-HJFT/.
- 3“Louisiana Student Accused of Punching 64-Year-Old Teacher for TikTok Challenge,” ABC13 Houston, October 8, 2021, https://perma.cc/E8GZ-9LHW.
- 4 Chris McCrory (@ckm_news], “This Is Insane. Video Appears to Catch a Covington High Student Attacking a 64-Year-Old Teacher Unprompted in the Classroom Read the Latest Here: Https://Wwltv.Com/Article/News/Local/Northshore/Video-Covington-High-Student-Arrested-for-Unprompted-Attack-on-Teacher/289-D0a72aea-1ffe-4a6b-9e53-A43053cc5460 Https://T.Co/J35moBSupH,” Twitter, October 7, 2021, https://perma.cc/A6ZJ-2VJ5; Chris McCrory, “Video: Covington High Student Arrested for Unprompted Attack on Teacher,” 4WW/, October 9, 2021, https://perma.cc/5GSN-EUAL.
- 5Libs of TikTok (@libsoftiktok), “Covington High School, LA: Student Punches 64 Year Old Teacher to the Ground in Unprompted Attack Https://T.Co/QOc0KELmUg,” Twitter, October 7, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20211007200845/https://twitter.com/libsofti….
- 6Captain Wonderdong (@capsonderdong), “Where Is the Tiktok ‘Slap a Teacher’ Challenge When You Need It?,” Twitter, October 7, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20211008014841/https://twitter.com/capwonde….
- 7Taylor Lorenz, “Meet the Woman behind Libs of TikTok, Secretly Fueling the Right’s Outrage Machine,” Washington Post, April 19, 2022, https://perma.cc/49ZP-CBZM.
Stage 3: Responses by industry, activists, politicians, and journalists
Despite lack of evidence that “slap a teacher” was a genuine TikTok challenge attracting student attention, US school administrators began to react to the list and to news reports of TikTok-inspired violence. Many issued warnings and formulated policies to respond to incidents, should students begin slapping teachers.
In Florida, Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho of the Miami-Dade County Public School district, the fourth-largest school system in the US, warned students in a Sep. 30, 2021, statement on Twitter that the district would have “zero-tolerance for such behavior and will investigate and prosecute to the full extent of the law.”1 He finished his tweet with the hashtag #SeeSomethingSaySomething, a post 9/11 public awareness campaign that usually refers to suspected terorrism.2
On Oct. 5, the California Teachers Association (CTA), the state’s largest and politically influential teachers’ union, with 310,000 members,3 posted a link to a statement on its Facebook page. The statement, labelled “When Social Media Trends Become Assault,” attributed the South Carolina slapping incident4 to the TikTok challenge, though authorities there could not verify the validity of this connection,5 and connected “slap a teacher” to “Devious Licks.”
“One of the latest trends on social media is a ‘challenge’ that encourages students to physically attack (‘slap’) educators and video-record it,” the statement said. “It is from the same ‘devious lick’ challenge that last month saw students vandalize public school restrooms and destroy school property across the country.”6
- 1Alberto M. Carvalho (@LAUSDSup), “Following the #deviouslicks @tiktok_us Trend That Emerged Nationwide, a More Disturbing One, Threatening Physical Harm to Teachers, Has Surfaced. @MDCPS Has Zero Tolerance for Such Behavior & Will Investigate & Prosecute to the Full Extent of the Law. #SeeSomethingSaySomething Https://T.Co/T5iixy2TEq,” Twitter, September 30, 2021, https://perma.cc/8Y8P-A2QY.
- 2“About the Campaign,” Department of Homeland Security, January 28, 2022, https://perma.cc/XE42-9WRQ.
- 3“Meet CTA,” California Teachers Association, accessed July 13, 2022, https://perma.cc/M352-ALJ5.
- 4Indira Eskieva, “SC Teacher Assaulted by Student for TikTok Challenge, School Officials Say,” WCNC Charlotte, October 9, 2021, https://perma.cc/UW2R-DLJQ.
- 5Jack Beresford, “Elementary School Teacher Assaulted by Pupil in ‘Slap’ TikTok Challenge,” Newsweek, October 3, 2021, https://perma.cc/PUL8-YGPE.
- 6“Warning for Educators: When Social Media Trends Become Assault,” California Teachers Association, accessed July 13, 2022, https://perma.cc/KD8M-RRZ3.
The California Teachers Union’s Facebook page had 48,947 followers as of researching this case in March 2022.1
Shortly after, on Oct. 8, 2021, the National Education Association – the US’s largest teachers union, with over 3 million people – wrote a letter to TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter, urging the platforms to take steps to prevent dangerous viral challenges and misinformation that poses a threat to schools and students. The letter cited “online ‘trends’ and false information that have spread like wildfire throughout social media platforms - from stealing property and hitting school staff….” It then applauded TikTok’s efforts to ban the hashtags around these two challenges.2
In addition to the teachers’ unions’ responses, two government officials took on the alleged TikTok threat. On Oct. 4, 2021, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong wrote a letter to TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew.
“In Connecticut, vandalism closed schools and the new ‘Slap a Teacher’ challenge may put educators at risk,” he wrote. “I am urging TikTok to come to Connecticut to meet with educators and parents and commit to reforms that stop this reckless content.”3 The letter was also posted to Twitter.
- 1“Warning for Educators: When Social Media Trends Become Assault,” California Teachers Association, accessed July 13, 2022, https://perma.cc/KD8M-RRZ3.
- 2Jennifer Calfas, “Teachers Union Urges TikTok, Facebook, Other Big Tech to Stop Spread of Viral Challenges,” Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2021, sec. US, https://perma.cc/2P3T-Y4RQ.
- 3AG William Tong (@AGWilliamTong), “TikTok Fails to Control the Spread of Dangerous Content. In CT, Vandalism Closed Schools and the New ‘Slap a Teacher’ Challenge May Put Educators at Risk. I Am Urging TikTok to Come to CT to Meet with Educators and Parents and Commit to Reforms That Stop This Reckless Content. Https://T.Co/SoO2wVT49M,” Twitter, October 4, 2021, https://perma.cc/FVW7-25QR.
Four days later, on Oct. 8, 2021, Congressman Joe Morelle of Rochester, New York, also wrote to Shou Zi Chew.
"TikTok challenges are posing real threats to the safety of educators in Rochester and beyond. Encouraging students to 'slap a teacher' isn't funny – it's assault, and it's illegal. I've written to TikTok and called on them to stop the spread of this dangerous content immediately," the congressman wrote, explaining the reasoning behind his letter.1 In his letter, the congressman refers to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to social media platforms for content posted by third parties and emphasizes to the CEO that, “TikTok has a responsibility to make a good faith effort to moderate this offensive content more effectively.”2
TikTok’s response to criticism from schools, parents and politicians was something of a balancing act. In an Oct. 6, 2021 statement on Twitter, the company condemned violence while disavowing any association with the alleged challenge, posting that, “The rumored ‘slap a teacher’ dare is an insult to educators everywhere. And while this is not a trend on TikTok, if at any point it shows up, content will be removed.”3
- 1 “CONGRESSMAN MORELLE CALLS ON TIKTOK TO REMOVE DANGEROUS CONTENT,” US Congressman Joseph Morelle, October 8, 2021, https://perma.cc/S6BH-D3D8.
- 2“CONGRESSMAN MORELLE LETTER TO TIKTOK CEO,” US Congressman Joseph Morelle, October 8, 2021, https://perma.cc/D4H6-YWEW.
- 3TikTok Communications (@TikTokComms), “The Rumored ‘slap a Teacher’ Dare Is an Insult to Educators Everywhere. And While This Is Not a Trend on TikTok, If at Any Point It Shows up, Content Will Be Removed. Learn More about Practicing Responsible Behavior Here: Https://Pta.Org/Docs/Default-Source/Files/Programs/Pta-Connected/Tiktok-Toolkit-2019-2020/Tiktok-Guide-for-Parents-Revised.Pdf,” Twitter, October 6, 2021, https://perma.cc/SXV8-NC3E.
On Sept. 28, 2022, a middle school language arts teacher, @ms.zak, posted a video highlighting how the challenge is assault. It is one of her most viewed videos as of March 2022, with 562.5k views and 58.1k comments.1
Early on, news outlets reporting on “slap a teacher” mainly ignored any refuting facts on the virality of the challenge, seizing instead on the news value of reporting on allegedly social media-inspired violence against teachers.
Local TV news stations such as Los Angeles’ KTLA,2 South Carolina’s WYFF4,3 Georgia’s Fox28,4 North Carolina’s WCNC,5 Missouri’s KY3,6 and West Virginia’s WSAZ7 all ran segments in October 2021 attributing student assaults on teachers to the “slap a teacher” challenge. None cited any direct evidence of the challenge going viral on TikTok or inspiring the assault.
Some national outlets also spread the unsubstantiated claims about “slap a teacher.” When the Washington Post covered the filmed Louisiana student-on-teacher attack, for example, it framed the assault as likely related to a TikTok challenge and recounted the previous havoc created by #deviouslicks.8
“We’re still trying to figure out if it’s isolated or related to TikTok,” a spokesman from the Covington Police Department, Sgt. Edwin Masters told The Post in an Oct. 8 article titled: “A student punched her disabled 64-year-old teacher. The attack might have been inspired by TikTok.”9 Despite its speculative headline, the same article later cited the local school superintendent saying: “We don’t have any evidence from our investigation that this incident is related to the TikTok challenge.”10 The Post article also included a statement from a TikTok spokesperson emphasizing that the company had not found content related to the challenge on its platform.
Using NexisUni, TaSC researchers reviewed 103 English-language articles from newspapers, newswires & press releases, magazines, and web news that referenced the “slap a teacher” TikTok challenge over the last year. Of these articles, 41 pieces were written before the first outlet, Gimlet Media, debunked the challenge with a lengthy investigation into the origins of “slap a challenge,” published on Oct. 28, 2021. These 41 articles referenced or reported on the challenge uncritically, without noting that such a challenge did not actually exist on the TikTok. Many of these publications were major local papers, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer11 and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.12 TaSC could not find any article that quoted students stating they attacked their teacher because of a TikTok challenge.
In addition to The Washington Post, other national media organizations such as the New York Times, The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times13 and CNN also reported or referenced the TikTok challenge without including that there was no evidence of such a challenge on the platform. So did international media organizations such as The Independent (UK), The Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand), and The Canadian Press (Canada).
After the Gimlet investigation into the list of challenges, the takeaway of many articles about “slap a teacher” cast a more skeptical eye on the phenomenon. Still, TaSC researchers identified 20 articles written after its publication that also reported or referenced the TikTok challenge without clarifying that such a challenge could not be found on the app. Together, these 103 articles represent a significant time and financial investment by newsrooms – many of them cash-strapped and perennially short-staffed – into covering news that was not actually news.
- 1Ms. Zak (@ms.zak), “Friendly PSA: Just… Don’t. 🥴 #teacher #middleschool #tiktokchallenge #teachersoftiktok #fyp #school,” TikTok, September 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/ZWY4-RNT6.
- 2KTLA Digital Staff, “‘Slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge Prompts Warning from California Teachers Association,” KTLA, October 5, 2021, https://perma.cc/7X59-A3L9.
- 3“Elementary Student in SC Follows through with ‘Slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge,” WYFF 4, October 4, 2021, https://perma.cc/HD4Z-95XN.
- 4Alexx Altman-Devilbiss, “Elementary Student in SC Follows through with ‘Slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge,” WTGS, October 4, 2021, https://perma.cc/4C72-PXMW.
- 5Indira Eskieva, “SC Teacher Assaulted by Student for TikTok Challenge, School Officials Say,” WCNC Charlotte, October 9, 2021, https://perma.cc/UW2R-DLJQ.
- 6KY3 Staff and Lauren Schwentker, “TikTok Trend: Springfield Public Schools Staff Member Slapped by Student for Viral Video,” KY3, October 5, 2021, https://perma.cc/PS89-UZDD.
- 7Marlee Pinchok, “Educators Warn against Viral ‘Slap a Teacher Challenge’ on TikTok,”WSAZ 3, October 5, 2021, https://perma.cc/YL6F-93C7.
- 8Julian Mark, “A TikTok Trend Inspired Students to Steal Toilets. Now, School Officials Say They’re Slapping Teachers.,” Washington Post, October 6, 2021, https://perma.cc/Y9EC-7ZQJ.
- 9Lateshia Beachum, “A Student Punched Her Disabled 64-Year-Old Teacher. The Attack Might Have Been Inspired by TikTok.,” Washington Post, October 8, 2021, https://perma.cc/6EBE-9MLD.
- 10Lateshia Beachum, “A Student Punched Her Disabled 64-Year-Old Teacher. The Attack Might Have Been Inspired by TikTok.,” Washington Post, October 8, 2021, https://perma.cc/6EBE-9MLD.
- 11Kristen A. Graham and Maddie Hanna, “TikTok Fuels Bathroom Vandalism, Teacher Targeting, and Security Pranks at Philly-Area Schools,”The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 2021, https://perma.cc/BT54-NN6E.
- 12Ty Tagami, “TikTok Trouble: Schools Wary of Teacher Assaults Encouraged by Social Media Campaigns,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 7, 2021, sec. Education, https://perma.cc/3AJJ-B85W.
- 13Melissa Gomez, “‘Educators Beware!’ TikTok Challenge to Slap a Teacher Prompts Urgent Warning,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2021, https://perma.cc/2Y4F-WAH5.
Stage 4: Mitigation
While the press and school administrators fretted about “slap a teacher,” students in fall 2021 responded by expressing doubts about the alleged new TikTok challenge.
Comments on TikTok videos questioning the virality of the “slap a teacher” challenge read: “Bro literally all my teachers were talking about a new trend, smack a staff member. Bish I didn’t even know about that trend.” Another comment read: ”who lied to them? I just got an email about it,” while another was, “It's not a trend they making it up now,” and “my mom talked about it too, it must have been a FB by some random parents that blew up,” and, lastly, “bro I definitely think they made this up.”1
Some teachers were suspicious of the alleged TikTok challenge list posted by Officer Gomez on Facebook, too, because of the language it contained. Teenagers do not tend to use such prim words as “backside,” teachers claimed. “Eggz” seemed similarly unlikely to be a 21st-century teen’s jargony spelling of eggs.2
Other teachers responded to the challenge with jesting and arguably skeptical TikToks of their own, in a kind of mitigation: They joked they would retaliate against students who tried to slap them.3
“I think [the challenge] won’t go the way they think it’s going to go,” says teacher-turned-comedian @therealeddiebcomedy in a video posted on Sept. 29, 2021. “I don’t just block, I counter” – meaning, he fights back. The video had received 978.1k views, 92.1k comments and 15.8k comments as of March 2022 and is one of the most watched videos on @therealeddiebcomedy’s account.4
Another popular video, posted by @lakieeffanickens, depicts two teachers lip-syncing to a song that sings “Try Jesus, not me, cause I throw hands,” as they mimic a boxing stance.5 This video received 168.8k views; most of their videos receive less than 1,000 views.
Simultaneously, researchers and critical press were beginning to question the alleged “slap a teacher” challenge.
“As far as I’m aware, not a single story has actually included evidence of an initial threat,” Abbie Richards, a researcher focusing on TikTok, tweeted on Oct. 5, 2021, above a list of news stories reporting on allegedly TikTok-inspired attacks. “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.”6
In her Twitter thread debunking the challenge, Richards pointed out the alleged spread of the “slap a teacher” challenge is “not how TikTok trends actually work. No single person has the power to determine a trend, let alone all the trends for a year,” she said. “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."
- 1 “#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 2 “#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 3IamLindaLuv (@iamlindaluv) “#fyp #psa #slaptheteacher #NissanShowUp #teachersoftiktok #BenefitOfBrows #slaptheteacherchallenge” TikTok, October 5 2021, https://perma.cc/D853-N2CU
- 4Eddie B (@therealeddiebcomedy), “How Some Teachers Feel about the ‘Slap a Teacher’ Challenge! 😡#teachers #therealeddiebcomedy #teacher #teachersoftiktok #fyp #teacherlife,” TikTok, September 29, 2021, https://perma.cc/V584-A9N3.
- 5Lakieffa Nickens (@kekeskreation2, “#KeepItReal #October #fyp #dontplay #KeepItReal #teacher,” TikTok, accessed July 13, 2022, https://perma.cc/CPA6-KRXM.
- 6Abbie Richards (@abbieasr), “As Far as I’m Aware, Not a Single Story Has Actually Includes Evidence of an Initial Threat. And When I Looked into This, I Couldn’t Find a Single TikTok Actually Endorsing This Behavior. Again. I Have Seen ZERO VIRAL VIDEOS ENDORSING THIS ‘CHALLENGE.,’” Twitter, October 6, 2021, https://perma.cc/N3S5-KHH2.
Shortly after the LA Times and Washington Post fanned the flames of the “slap a teacher” challenge by suggesting TikTok had inspired recent assaults on teachers, Vice, Insider, and Snopes all published articles exploring the validity of such claims. Vice’s Oct. 6, 2021 investigation concluded that “there’s no evidence that the ‘Slap a Teacher’ challenge they’re all worried about even exists.”1 On the same day, Insider also debunked the challenge, concluding that it “was unable to find evidence of the "slap a teacher" challenge trending or widely circulating on TikTok,” and that the rumor was spread on Facebook.2 Snopes made similar conclusions, writing on Oct. 7, 2021: “As of this writing, we have not found evidence to support the claim that “slap a teacher” is in fact a viral or widespread trend on TikTok.”3
The definitive debunk came on Oct. 28, 2021, when Gimlet Media published an investigative episode on its Reply All podcast that sought to establish the origins of the viral but dubious “slap a teacher” challenge. Gimlet was the first to identify Superintendent Villanueva and to interview Deputy Gomez, revealing that neither had confirmed the veracity of the list of challenges before sharing. In one case the school district even told Reply All that a slapping case at their school was actually unrelated to TikTok.4
A TikTok spokesperson contacted by the podcast reported that they “hadn’t seen [the list]” but told Gimlet that the company had “policies against posts that coordinate harm or posts that promote or encourage dangerous viral challenges.” Facebook representatives told Gimlet media they had not seen the slap a teacher misinformation on their platform. The company did not respond after Gimlet media sent them screenshots of Facebook posts spreading the slap a teacher misinformation.5
Deputy Gomez told Gimlet Media that both TikTok representatives and multiple law enforcement agencies had reached out to him about the challenge, treating him as an expert on the matter. Gomez defended his choice to publish the list: “I am totally fine erring on the side of just a possibility, there’s no way I can tell the future so if I can’t be sure of it, am I not going to put out warnings? No, I'm going to put out warnings.”6
While Gimlet was able to thoroughly discredit the idea that “slap a teacher” existed on TikTok, its investigation was unable to explain why this particular example of misinformation spread so rapidly. Five months later, a Washington Post investigation by reporters Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell answered that question. In a March 30, 2022, article, The Post revealed that Meta (aka Facebook) had paid one of the largest Republican consulting firms in the US, Targeted Victory, to create a grassroots critical press campaign against TikTok in local media nationwide.
Internal communications published by The Post show that Meta sought to depict TikTok as harmful to American children while pushing for positive coverage for its own platforms. At the time, Facebook was losing daily users for the first time in its 18-year history; it attributed this loss to the popularity of TikTok.7 The Post article does not specify when the Targeted Victory campaign began, but does show that in September 2021 the PR firm pushed local media in Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Washington D.C. to write stories about the “devious licks” challenge.
A director at Targeted Victory wrote that the firm needs to “get the message out that while Meta is the current punching bag, TikTok is the real threat especially as a foreign-owned app that is #1 in sharing data that young teens are using,” revealed one email. In another, a director queried about local reporters who could serve as a “back channel” for anti-TikTok messaging. “Dream would be to get stories with headlines like ‘From dances to danger: how TikTok has become the most harmful social media space for kids.’”
In October 2021, a month after it promoted stories about “devious licks,” Targeted Victory pushed local media nationwide to report on “slap a teacher” rumors. The PR firm’s involvement is what transformed rumors about a concerning TikTok challenge into a viral media manipulation campaign.8
In response to The Post’s investigation, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, commented on Twitter: “Facebook fanned the flames of the Devious Licks hoax and terrified teachers, students and parents across America as a result. They didn't care about the impact on teachers and students, they just wanted to attack a competitor. This is really shameful.”
- 1David Gilbert, “The ‘Slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge Is a Hoax,” Vice, October 6, 2021, https://perma.cc/P85F-QTP8.
- 2 Palmer Haasch, “Schools Are Cautioning against a ‘slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge, but It Appears to Be a Rumor Spread on Facebook,” Insider, October 6, 2021, https://perma.cc/WPU8-4S9J.
- 3Bethania Palma, “Fears Raised Over ‘Slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge — But Is It Real?,” Snopes, October 7, 2021, https://perma.cc/7UH2-638P.
- 4 “#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 5“#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 6“#181 Absolutely Devious Lick | Reply All,” Gimlet, October 28, 2021, https://perma.cc/YRM9-XNAA.
- 7Robert Hart, “Facebook Loses Daily Active Users For The First Time – Here’s Where They’re Going,” Forbes, February 3, 2022, https://perma.cc/9G36-AZE2.
- 8Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell, “Facebook Paid GOP Firm to Malign TikTok,” Washington Post, March 30, 2022, https://perma.cc/M9ZJ-2W3L; WBTV Web Staff and Debra Worley, “‘Slap a Teacher’ TikTok Challenge Has School Districts on Alert,” Hawaii News Now, October 4, 2021, https://perma.cc/Z5Y7-7CAY.
After The Post article was published in March 2022, TikTok said it was “deeply concerned” by the campaign paid for by Meta,1 telling reporter Casey Newton that it sent its trust and safety teams on “a wild goose chase” looking for the “slap a teacher” challenge.2 A Meta spokesperson told reporter Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell that “TikTok deserves scrutiny” and that what Targeted Victory undertook was “normal PR.”3
By January 2022, search on TikTok for the phrase “slap a teacher” directed users to a landing page saying, “No results found” and warning that this hashtag “may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines.” In March 2022, the search results for #slapateacherchallenge, #slapteacher, #slappingteachers, #slapateacher all showed the same statement: “Learn how to recognize harmful challenges and hoaxes,” with links to TikTok’s “Online challenges and hoaxes” support page. The search term #slappingteacher still yields search results — primarily of teachers discussing or joking about the challenge.
Notably, as of March 2022, Facebook still has not labelled posts that included the hashtag #slapateacherchallenge4 when sharing local news videos5 or articles spreading the rumor of the challenge.6 According to TaSC’s investigation, Facebook did debunk the TikTok rumor at least one time, though – and it did so very early on in this media manipulation cycle. On Oct. 5, 2021, almost two weeks after he posted the list of monthly challenges, Officer Gomez shared an article about a school violence incident potentially related to the “slap a teacher” challenge. Facebook labeled his post as, “False information checked by independent fact-checkers.”7
- 1 J. Clara Chan, “TikTok ‘Deeply Concerned’ by Facebook’s Paid Campaign to Promote Negative Coverage of Social App,” The Hollywood Reporter, March 30, 2022, https://perma.cc/KQ63-B62Y.
- 2Casey Newton, “The Lesson Facebook Won’t Learn,” Platformer, March 30, 2022, https://perma.cc/G4QB-HGRY.
- 3Derek Thompson, “Should You Be Afraid of TikTok?,” The Ringer, April 1, 2022, https://perma.cc/W4S3-7LWK.
- 4“#slapateacherchallenge - Explore,” Facebook, accessed July 13, 2022, https://perma.cc/QGL7-GFXG.
- 5Edward Malone, “Children Are Now Slapping Teachers Pursuant To New ‘Slap A Teacher’ TikTok Challenge,” Facebook, October 7, 2021, https://perma.cc/HP9Y-6MQU.
- 6Complex, “TikTok Has a ‘Slap a Teacher’ Challenge.,” Facebook, October 6, 2021, https://perma.cc/3TWK-RFB3.
- 7Officer Gomez, “#slapateacherchallenge I Have Been Getting Multiple Reports of This Happening around the Country. Talk to Your Kids, Their Friends, and Anyone That Will Listen. A Few Minutes of TikTok Fame (They Will Pull the Video Quickly) Is Not Worth the Possible Lifetime of Consequences.,” Facebook, October 5, 2021, https://perma.cc/FV6H-2FK2.
Stage 5: Adjustments by manipulators to the new environment
TaSC has found no effort to continue to push the “slap a teacher” challenge after it was debunked.
By March 2022, searches for variations of “slap a teacher” on TikTok revealed only videos of teachers and students making fun of the challenge. One video by @teachersdontunderstand, received 905.k views and 66.5k comments, depicted a teacher being scared of a student trying to high-five them, assuming that they were about to be slapped.
However, Meta continued using Targeted Victory to target TikTok.1 According to the March 2022 Washington Post investigation, the PR firm searched for negative TikTok coverage it could amplify using a Google document titled “Bad TikTok Clips.” The document included unreliable local news stories linking TikTok with dangerous teenage trends. On March 12, 2022, the firm placed op-eds critical of TikTok in the Denver Post2 and the Des Moines Register.
On Dec. 17, 2021, several schools in states including MI, AZ, CT, IL, TX, and MT increased security and at least one shut down, due to shooting threats from an alleged TikTok post. Several news articles suggested the TikTok post was following the “devious lick” and “slap a teacher” trends of inciting violence and criminality in schools.3
TaSC researcher Emily Dreyfuss investigated these claims at the time and cautioned a local CBS radio channel in California to be skeptical of connecting real world violence to social media/ “We in the media need to take stock of the role we play here,” she said, “because there is absolutely, as far as I can tell, nothing to corroborate a headline that says this is a TikTok trend.”4
- 1Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell, “Facebook Paid GOP Firm to Malign TikTok,” Washington Post, March 30, 2022, https://perma.cc/9ZYY-U6CE.
- 2DP OPINION, “Letters: Readers Share Their Ideas on How to Reform and Save RTD,” The Denver Post, March 21, 2022, https://perma.cc/CK7N-Z6G9.
- 3Associated Press, “Schools Step up Security in Response to Threats on TikTok,” US News World Report, December 16, 2021, https://perma.cc/E6E9-ZSJZ; Alisha Rahaman Sarkar, “Calls for TikTok to Shut down Viral Post Threatening Schools with Violence,” The Independent, December 17, 2021, https://perma.cc/6W68-FVDD.
- 4Marcus White, “TikTok, Law Enforcement, Researchers Find No School Shooting Threats on Platform,” KCBS Radio, December 18, 2021, https://perma.cc/FY2W-W9DF.
Rumors of dangerous internet challenges have long created panic among adults. Examples include the purportedly self harm-inducing “momo” challenge of 20191 and 2016’s “blue whale” challenge, an alleged suicide game.2 In December, around two months after “slap a teacher” went viral, US schools were shut down by rumors that another TikTok challenge was encouraging school shootings.3 None of these challenges was ever confirmed to have existed online, or to have spurred teens to real world action. But as #deviouslicks shows, some challenges are real.
The TikTok “slap a teacher” challenge is different from these examples – and from many other Casebook case studies – because it documents misinformation about a rumored challenge becoming an intentional media manipulation campaign. It demonstrates how a company can exploit false claims for its own strategic gain. Facebook’s actions after the “slap a teacher” panic had already gone viral capitalized on adult fears of the online challenges targeting susceptible teens, both real and invented, in order to smear rival TikTok.
This case also highlights the true costs of viral misinformation, which in this case was largely an opportunity cost. Newspapers wasted time and resources writing articles about a nonexistent TikTok challenge, inciting fear in schools, which then spent time and energy trying to stop the challenge from disrupting teachers and class. Government officials, in an effort to protect constituents and put TikTok on watch, diverted their attention from other concerns to deal with what amounted to a hoax.
Facebook’s actions in the “slap a teacher” case echo similar tactics it employed in the past. In at multiple instances, when Facebook’s standing as the leading social media app was threatened by the rise of another company, it acted aggressively to, first, copy the product’s popular features4 and even eventually, buy the company itself; this was the strategy behind acquiring Instagram5 and WhatsApp.6 Here, Facebook allegedly paid to launch a campaign against TikTok that would result in TikTok getting negative news coverage.
In this case, the negative press attention was unwarranted, but TikTok, like Facebook, does have legitimate content moderation problems.7 In March 2022, multiple state attorneys general teamed up to investigate TikTok’s potential harms to children.8 The move followed the release in January 2022 of new documents revealing that the app had inundated users with videos that, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation, contributed to a wave of eating disorders.9 This investigation is an extension of an inquiry into similar concerns over Facebook and Instagram.10
The internet is full of potential dangers. For now, however, TikTok videos urging students to slap their teachers isn’t one of them.
- 1Emily Dreyfuss, “How to Not Fall for Viral Scares,” Wired, February 28, 2019, https://perma.cc/6G4W-HHFA.
- 2Ant Adeane, “Blue Whale: What is the truth behind an online 'suicide challenge'?” BBC News, January 13, 2019, https://perma.cc/LU5Q-NBFW.
- 3Derrick Bryson Taylor, Amanda Holpuch, and Maria Cramer, “Some U.S. Schools Close After Shooting Rumors on Social Media,” The New York Times, December 17, 2021, sec. U.S., https://perma.cc/CG2F-LT9M.
- 4Billy Gallagher, “Copycat: How Facebook Tried to Squash Snapchat,” Wired, February 16, 2018, https://perma.cc/S2X7-XTX4; Shirin Ghaffary, “TikTok Clone Instagram Reels Is Just One of the Many Times Facebook Has Copied Its Competitors,” Vox, August 5, 2020, https://perma.cc/6H4Y-Y447.
- 5Casey Newton and Nilay Patel, “‘Instagram Can Hurt Us’: Mark Zuckerberg Emails Outline Plan to Neutralize Competitors,” The Verge, July 29, 2020, https://perma.cc/K4NZ-3G59.
- 6Charlie Warzel and Ryan Mac, “These Confidential Charts Show Why Facebook Bought WhatsApp,” BuzzFeed News, December 5, 2018, https://perma.cc/WPA6-HKWZ.
- 7Drew Harwell and Tony Romm, “TikTok’s Beijing Roots Fuel Censorship Suspicion as It Builds a Huge U.S. Audience,” Washington Post, September 15, 2019, https://perma.cc/TZ9J-7NLU/.
- 8Tawnell D. Hobbs, Rob Barry, and Yoree Koh, “TikTok Faces Scrutiny in State Attorneys General Probe of Online Harms to Children,” Wall Street Journal, https://perma.cc/M44Z-SZ9P.
- 9Tawnell D. Hobbs, Rob Barry, and Yoree Koh, “TikTok Floods Teens With Eating-Disorder Videos,” The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2022, https://perma.cc/R5UD-W6Y4.
- 10Jeff Horwitz and Georgia Wells, Instagram’s Effects on Children Are Being Investigated by Coalition of States, Wall Street Journal, Nov 18 2021, https://perma.cc/3M8X-E8DV.
Cite this case study
Jazilah Salam, "Slap a Teacher: From TikTok Hoax to Media-fueled Panic," The Media Manipulation Case Book, July 19, 2022, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/slap-teacher-tiktok-hoax-media-fueled-panic.