Largest teachers union demands tech leaders regulate dangerous social media challenges

Teachers around the country are demanding the leaders of social media companies take action to limit viral challenges that encourage destructive and violent behavior at school.

The president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, sent a letter to the leaders of Tik Tok, Facebook, and Twitter Friday, calling on them to change their algorithms that promote challenges like the #SlapATeacherChallenge, and spread disinformation to students.

"We’re calling on your companies to take this threat seriously and prioritize the safety of people over profits – you can help put an end to the stream of propaganda fueling violence against educators in our communities. Your companies have both the power and responsibility to stamp out disinformation and violent trends – for the sake of Public Education and the future of democracy. To that end, we’re demanding that your companies make a public pledge to students, educators, and their families to regulate lies and fix your algorithms to put public safety over profits," Rebecca Pringle, the president of the NEA, said in the letter, first shared by the Wall Street Journal.

While Tik Tok has already removed the hashtags around the recent viral video encouraging students to slap their teachers in the face on video, the content has migrated to YouTube.

"I saw it on YouTube because sometimes they have Tik Tok videos on YouTube," Celeste Howell, a third-grader in Alameda who said. The eight-year-old claims she saw a video of a student slapping a teacher while browsing YouTube before bed.

"I thought, it should not be happening, and I felt bad for the teacher who got slapped," Celeste said.

Her experience suggests that Tik Tok is not the only social media company proliferating these videos.

In a statement sent to KTVU, a Tik Tok spokesperson said, "this alleged 'challenge' would violate our policies and we would aggressively remove such content, but the reality is that we have not found related content on our platform, and most people appear to be learning about the offline dare from sources other than TikTok." 

Facebook and Twitter did not respond to KTVU's request for comment.

Other challenges, like the "Devious Licks" Tik Tok challenge, encouraging students to vandalize school restrooms, went viral in September, and are impacting Bay Area schools.

At Will C. Wood Middle School in Alameda, students say the girls and boys bathrooms were vandalized in recent weeks, and blame the Devious Licks challenge for inciting the destruction.

"One of the stall doors was messed up, and one soap dispenser was pulled out of the wall," Fawkes Pounzy, an 8th grader at Wood said, adding that a student was also caught taking an exit sign off of the top of a door at school.

"It's not okay, to say the least. But they should stop, and I think there should probably be some other kind of regulation around it," Fawkes said.

"I don't think like anybody really likes having like, their challenges taken control of, but when it gets so out of hand, it becomes like a need to have that," Isla Vessali, an 8th grader at Wood, said.

Tweaking an algorithm to sort out the dangerous social media challenges from the harmless ones might not be as simple, or even technologically feasible operation.

"It's easy to demand that an algorithm be tinkered with," David Greene, civil liberties director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Bay Area-based digital rights group said.

"I don't know how feasible that is for the companies to do," Greene said. "I hope we hear from the companies. I hope they tell us whether this is something they can do, or can't do, or whether they have another approach."