social media

The author says that, clearly, our vulnerable young people have endured much and suffered greatly. Now, we’re all watching as threatened or actual violence has gone viral in our daily lives.

On this Halloweekend, there’s a dark cloud of unease draped over our nation, and it’s not about the prospects of a visitation from decked-out ghosts and goblins seeking to trick us in exchange for tasty treats.

No, what has caught our attention is the viral spread on antisocial media of threats against our schoolchildren, faculty and staff, following a disturbing pattern of harassment against school boards in parts of the nation over vaccine and mask mandates.

“Going viral” is a bizarre turn of phrase at a time when the coronavirus continues to plague us. But, that was the subject line of an urgent email that went out to the news media Tuesday afternoon from the Pittsfield Police Department. The subject line: “Unsubstantiated Viral Threat.”

“A social media message that had been circulating in various communities around the country gained traction among students in Pittsfield, and has caused concern within the Pittsfield Public School community. The message, which threatens violence, has not been accompanied by any corroborating information, and is NOT believed to be credible. It is consistent with a nationwide hoax.”

Although no specific threat was directed at the city’s schools, police deployed patrols, out of an abundance of caution, to provide visibility and support and undoubtedly to assuage the concerns of families frightened by the viral hoax. Police in Lenox and other communities responded in kind. Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Joseph Curtis emailed and robo-called families about the messages circulating on Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook and other so-called social media feeds “coming across state lines. The posts are not believed to have originated in Pittsfield but led to unfounded speculation, among students, that at least one school had gone into lockdown.”

In a follow-up message, Curtis identified Taconic High School, where rumors of a lockdown and discovery of a gun had circulated.

There was no gun. But, there was plenty of anxiety and fear not only locally, but across the U.S. A few examples:

• The Sacramento Bee newspaper and website reported widespread, threatening online posts and anonymous calls on campuses throughout the state capital and elsewhere in Central California. One high school went into a “soft lockdown.”

• Several schools in the San Francisco Bay Area canceled classes in the wake of online threats.

• An arrest was made in Florida after an “unsubstantiated threat” to a Palm Beach County high school. Similar online harassment was reported in Naples and surrounding towns on the state’s Gulf coast.

• At least five middle and high school students in the Atlanta area were arrested after allegedly posting viral messages on Snapchat and TikTok.

• School officials in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y., had to reassure families after the original Snapchat post surfaced on Facebook and other sites. Whether the threats originated in a small town near Rochester, N.Y., St. Joseph, Mo., or somewhere else remains unclear.

The point is that there’s widespread high anxiety, likely an outgrowth of the pandemic, the epidemic of shootings at schools and other public settings nationwide, and the bitter, verbally fraught confrontation between partisans on the right and the left, with the majority of peace-loving independents caught in the middle. Of course, it’s more complicated than that — above my pay grade to properly analyze.

Curtis, the Pittsfield superintendent, advised families to disregard rumors and rely on school officials for the facts. But, the scourge of gun violence, with near-daily eruptions large and small, along with the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and narrowly averted coup, social justice movement protests as well as economic dislocations stemming from the pandemic, have set the nation on edge.

Clearly, our vulnerable young people have endured much and suffered greatly. Now, we’re all watching as threatened or actual violence has gone viral in our daily lives.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.