EMMANUEL: Today's show is brought to you by your childhood violin, piano, drum, or clarinet teachers. God bless em, they really showed up week after week, acted like they didn't know you waited until just 15 minutes before each lesson to practice, and now look at you! You're an adult trying to learn an instrument again, crying now that you know how much those lessons actually cost. So, shout out to Mr Linares, you were right my guy. Okay, now for the real ads.
ALEX: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman. And I this week I am here with Reply All producer Anna Foley. Hey Anna, how's it going?
ANNA: Hey, Alex. I'm good, how are you?
ALEX: I'm good. Um, you have a story you wanna tell me. I am dying to hear it, so can you hit me with it? Can you hit me with your best shot...[SINGING] Fire away! Duh-nuh duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh.
ANNA: [JOINS IN SINGING] Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh. [SPEAKING] Yeah, okay. Yeah, I'm in it now. I have a story for you and it all starts with a question from a listener who reached out to us.
ANNA: Do you want to start just by introducing yourself, what your name is and where you are in the world?
ELISA: Sure. Um, my name's Elisa, and, uh, I live, uh, Belton. It's a really small, uh, kind of conservative town in central Texas.
ELISA: It's about an hour north of Austin.
Elisa works at a school as a specialist in school psychology working one-on-one with kids.
ANNA: Are you at an elementary, a middle, high school?
ELISA: I've worked at all levels, but right now, I'm at a middle school.
ANNA: Gotcha. Very formative time.
ELISA: Very. [laughs] I love it, though.
So, Elisa had written in about a school prank one that had just gotten completely out of hand…
ALEX: Ok what was it?
Alex, have you heard of this thing called “the devious lick”?
ALEX: Is it how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? Mr. Owl said that it was three, obviously.
ANNA: Story done. That's it. Have you not heard of it at all?
ANNA: You like—you don't? Okay.
Since hearing about “devious lick,” I’ve learned that it is a trend that seems to have started on September 1st, 2021
when this kid with the username jugg4elias posted a video on TikTok. The video was super brief. Um, there was a Lil B song playing underneath. It went like . . .
[Lil B - Ski Ski BasedGod (sped up/TikTok Remix)]
And so, the video was this kid showing off a bunch of surgical masks that they'd stolen from school and hidden in their backpack.
ANNA: And they posted the video with the caption: “A month into school . . . absolutely devious lick. Should've brought a mask from home.” And a lick just means stealing something.
ALEX: Got it.
ANNA: So, this video totally took off on TikTok.
ANNA: And it inspired a bunch of copycat thieves to follow in jugg4elias’ footsteps. I talked to a bunch of people across the country about this trend –– teachers, my own family members, kids in middle and high school in new york city.
SISTER: People started stealing from like, small, like, pretty much unnoticeable things. SISTER 2: Mostly it’s like, really, really weird things.
In all of these TikTok videos you see kids in their school bathrooms taking rolls of paper towels, soap out of the dispensers.
TIKTOKER 1: Aw, hell no. Who stole the fucking soap?
They all started using that TikTok voice—you know, like the warm and friendly AI one that kinda sounds like Siri.
TIKTOKER 2: Can’t even wash my hands ‘cause of this trend.
But then the thievery became a little bit more brazen. Kids were stealing toilets.
[Lil B - Ski Ski BasedGod (sped up/TikTok Remix)]
ALEX: Why would they steal toilets? What do you get out of that?
TIKTOKER 3: Oh, hell no. This school is wiling. Somebody took the fucking dryer, bro.
TIKTOKER 4: LMFAO. Someone stole the teacher's desk.
SISTER: The progressively worse that it got, the name changed a little, like, from devious lick to diabolical lick. [Anna laughs] People also say, like, despicable lick.
ANNA: This whole thing was getting really serious.
ELISA: I know one person, I think their sink was stolen Because somebody set off a stink bomb, they had to do a gas leak test, and that set the district back, you know, about 10,000 dollars
ANNA: Oh my god.
SISTER: Yeah, bro, I saw someone steal the, um, the keys to the school bus.
ANNA: [laughs] What?
SISTER: And they just drove it away.
ANNA: Did they take it for a joy ride?
SISTER: Like, you’re gonna go from devious lick to devious licking the damn jail cell. Like, I don’t care about...
Schools were obviously scrambling to figure out what to do. Kids were also posting their principals’ reactions to it, like principals announcing over the intercom.
[Lil B - Ski Ski BasedGod (sped up/TikTok Remix)]
ALEX: [laughs] That’s kind of funny. I’m sorry.
TIKTOKER 5: Well, let’s go and take a look at some of these extremely mad principals.
PRINCIPAL: We do not have the resources to call each of your parents and tell them what you’re doing, so from now on, we will be...
TIKTOKER 6: Y’all gotta stop this trend.
PRINCIPAL: This has to come to an end. It’s come to the point where it’s absolutely unbearable, all right? The delicious, uh, devious lick trend on TikTok needs to come to an end, okay? I’ve had enough...
ANNA: Everybody was freaking out about this. And what ended up happening next was TikTok actually did something. They banned the hashtag devious lick and they took down any content that had anything to do with the devious lick And that seemed to help. Like, all of these adults were getting to take this huge sigh of relief, because it looked like Devious Licks was dead, for the most part. But then, around the end of September, rumors started spreading saying that devious licks might be done but there was something new and worse and far more sinister that was coming down the pipe. Here’s Elisa.
ELISA: I’m a part of, uh, you know, different school psychology groups on Facebook. But in the last couple of weeks, I've seen this list of TikTok challenges [ANNA: Uh-huh.] being passed around Facebook. And I can try to find it if you want.
ELISA: It's—Okay, so, here we go
Elisa told me this list she’d seen on Facebook was like a month-by-month calendar that told kids what pranks they should play on their schools for the entire rest of the year. She said she’d seen a couple different versions floating around, but she sent me one of them.
And the thing that she wanted to talk with me about was the challenge for the month of October, which was Slap A Teacher.
ALEX: That's quite an escalation!
ANNA: I know. We're going from bathrooms to assault, just real quick.
And I want to show you some of the stuff that is on the rest of this list is pretty gross. Like ok.
ANNA: November is “Kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school.” December is—Okay, I'm gonna read it to you the way that it's typed out in the list that was given to me, but then, I—you're just gonna see. Okay, so December is, quote, "Deck the halls and show your B**** in school halls.
ANNA: Do you want to say… [laughs] Who’s gonna have to say it? [laughs] It's “Deck the halls and show your balls.”
ALEX: Oh, oh! I didn't even get it.
ANNA: January is “Jab a breast.”
ALEX: Okay, so we're back to assault. This sucks.
ALEX: Like, attacking people?
ANNA: And then, it just kinda goes into some more vandalism challenges like April is “Grab some “eggs”,” which is in quotations. Whatever eggs means.
ALEX: I think it’s testicles.
ANNA: That’s your opinion and it is valid.
ANNA: May is “Ditch day.” June is “Flip off the front office.”
ALEX: Definitely did that in school, and definitely got in-school suspension for it.
ANNA: Oh, interesting. Whenever I was pissed off at a teacher, I would shove my hands in my pockets and do the middle finger. Like, I was so afraid of authority, but I was really pissed off at teachers.
ALEX: That's incredible. You're in-, you—you’re incredible.
ANNA: Uh-huh. Well, sometimes, sometimes I would also, um, wait till the end of the day and [laughs] give the middle finger in bed before I went to sleep. It's just like, one more fuck you that I've been holding in all day. [laughs]
ALEX: Did you ever like—did you ever get detention or anything?
ANNA: Never, I never ever did. That would have ruined me as a child.
ALEX: You sound really cool. You sound fun to hang out with.
ANNA: I was a blast! [SMILE] Um but back to Elisa. When she was looking at this list of challenges, she just felt like she was staring down the barrel of a year of hell from teenagers,
ALEX: Yeah if it’s legit it sounds awful
ANNA: Yeah and like, I think hell brought by teenagers is maybe one of the worst types as an adult. But then, you know, Elisa starts looking at the list a little closer. And as somebody who works with teenagers all day every day, she started to notice some things that just gave her questions on the list.
ELISA: The wording, the wording of it is, is just so unusual.
ELISA: This version of it says, "Smack a staff member on the backside." I don't, I don't know of any middle schooler or any high schooler that would use the word “backside.” [laughs] My other favorite? April's challenge is supposed to be “Grab some “eggz”.” Eggz is in quotation marks and there's a Z at the end.
ANNA: [LAUGHS] Okay?
ELISA: Because, you know, the edgy youth of today use Z to, uh, make things plural. That's fun.
ANNA: So Elisa felt like the language that was showing up in this list was like some kind of weird retro language that I she would hear in a tv show that was filmed now but set in the 90s. Like not how kids talk today at all. Which made her feel suspicious at the idea that students had really come up with this whole list in the first place.
ALEX: Yeah I mean it’s hard for me to imagine kids saying stuff in the way that it is written on that list, but more than that, it’s hard for me to imagine kids actually engaging in this behavior, it’s pretty extreme/
ANNA: Yeah totally but at the same time, when I was talking to Elisa, she told me it wasn’t so easy for everyone in education to write it off kinda like we are now.
ELISA: What really got to me is how a lot of people in education just on Facebook were really dreading this month because school districts are taking it very seriously and they can’t afford not to um because like i said being in education in the past year has been absolutely brutal.
From Elisa’s perspective people in education have had to spend the last year and some change dealing with a bunch of stuff I feel like we feel like we know about ambiently. You know, like being around unvaccinated kids, worrying about the school budget being cut,
ALEX: Man, like even the practical stuff has been terrible. Like it’s all crazy.
ANNA: Yeah but one of the biggest things that’s weighing on these teachers mind is just kids returning to school in general. Because these kids are dealing with the same trauma we all have been dealing with and, in a lot of cases, these kids haven’t had a normal education in almost three school years.
ANNA: So it makes sense to her that teachers would be worried these challenges are going to happen because everything else around them is already crumbling, why wouldn’t this too?
ANNA: And while Elisa was suspicious that these challenges were going to happen she didn't know completely what to think. She wondered how worried she should be. Where the hell had this thing come from and who was behind it?
So I went to go find out. And Right after I got off the phone with Elisa, I started seeing news that teachers were getting slapped.
NEWS CLIP 1: Now we have the story of a student who’s accused of assaulting a teacher as part of a TikTok challenge.
NEWS CLIP 2: And now Braintree is confirming that a middle school teacher was a target.
There were cases in Massachusetts, South Carolina. A teenager was arrested in Louisiana.
NEWS CLIP 3: An 18-year-old Covington High School student seen right on this side, I should say, is now behind bars for punching her 64-year-old disabled teacher. Police believe it was all part of a TikTok challenge.
My first step was to look, ok are these incidents that I’m seeing on the news actually showing up on TikTok. But the weird thing was, when I went on TikTok, there weren’t any videos of teachers getting slapped, or of people talking about this list of challenges on my “For You” page on TikTok. I had searched the entire app, and I just couldn't find them.
And so maybe that was because TikTok had done what they had before… like rerouted a hashtag that was related to this. And so I wrote Tik Tok about it and I was like, “Hey, what’s going on here?” And they were like, “We haven’t seen anything of this nature on our app.” Like, the TikTok spokesperson said, “The first time I saw this list, it was a screenshot. It was not a video on TikTok.”
There wasn’t any evidence of this happening on TikTok at all, from what we could see.
ANNA: But it was clear the idea of this list was spreading. Which just seemed dangerous. The more people who knew about it, the more likely it seemed like something bad would actually happen. But if it wasn’t kids on tik tok spreading this list, where was it spreading? And was it even kids at all?
ANNA: And when I started to look further into the origins of this list
I came across this post on Reddit. It was on the subReddit that's just called Teachers. And basically, what the post was saying was, “Hey, I know everybody's talking about this list. It's getting passed around a lot. I think I might have found where this list came from.”
ANNA: Yeah. Which was exciting to me when I saw it. The Reddit post said that this list came from an adult man in Idaho. His name is Officer David Gomez. Uh, he’s a school resources officer, which is literally a cop that works in schools. So I called him. He was in his office at school.
[MUSIC FADES UNDER]
OFFICER GOMEZ: Oh you are breaking up. I’m breaking up. One of us is...
ANNA: Yeah Yeah
GOMEZ: We’ll give it a second. I’m up in the mountains, so sometimes my internet [CUTS OUT] goes a little bit strange.
ANNA: But you have—you probably have beautiful views, so maybe it’s worth it.
OFFICER GOMEZ: We have beautiful views. I mean, we have deer and elk in our backyard, so it’s—sounds like we have our connection back.
ANNA: So cool, again, thank you so much for talking to me. Can we just go ahead and start by—what’s your name and what do you do?
OFFICER GOMEZ: So, I am Deputy David Gomez. I’m a school resource officer.
OFFICER GOMEZ: My job is, I work at the school full-time, full uniform. I have a patrol car outside.
When I talked to Officer Gomez, he was wearing his uniform, with the badge on his shoulder and everything. He had a buzzcut. He loves his job, but what he’s most known for is his Facebook page.
ANNA: So I'm gonna send you the page. [SCATTING] Doot, doot, doot, bah, bah, bah. And I want you to tell me what you think.
So you open the page, and the first thing you see is the banner picture. And it says, “Officer Gomez.” It's in white and black and orange, and it says—
ANNA, ALEX [IN UNISON]: The truth about youth.
OFFICER GOMEZ: Yeah. So, what I found early on is that there was very little, I call it non-politically correct information for parents. So sometimes, you just have to tell parents how it is. And then as I started teaching classes, it was the same way. I have to tell parents exactly how it is, or they’re just not gonna listen. And it’s the same with kids. I have some very direct conversations with kids, same way, because if I don’t, they know. It, it just doesn’t carry the message the same way.
ANNA: He’s almost, like, an influencer in this ecosystem of parents and teachers, and people who work at schools, and just concerned adults in general who are trying to warn each other about the dangers of social media and children on the internet.
So, Alex, he, he writes these long posts about all sorts of things, like how your kids are buying vapes and weed, how to tell if your kid is sending inappropriate photos to their friends, things of that nature, you know?
ANNA: And Alex—
ANNA: …it was on September 22nd that he posted the list of TikTok challenges.
ALEX: Got it. Okay.
ANNA: So I wanted to know what Officer Gomez could teach me about the origins of this list.
Like, I doubted Officer Gomez had written this list himself, but maybe he had gotten from a kid or just had some clearer idea of where it had come from.
ANNA: When did you first see that list?
OFFICER GOMEZ: So, I, I saw—I got the list from two different sources.
ANNA: And you don’t have to give away, like, names or anything, but who were your sources?
OFFICER GOMEZ: So, I, I belong to some different groups.
OFFICER GOMEZ: Um, some of ‘em are internet groups. Some of ‘em are drug recognition groups. In fact, this one came on a drug recognition group that I’m part of.
OFFICER GOMEZ: Um, when we get drugs that we don’t know what they are or haven’t seen, we post it so that people can—other officers can see. Um, but they said, “Hey, look, this is what’s coming.” And then I got it from—a couple of parents as well had sent me screenshots. “Hey, look, my kid says this is what’s coming next.”
ANNA: How did you determine that this was actually, like, from a kid, you know?
OFFICER GOMEZ: [PAUSE] So, there’s no way for me to know that it’s from a kid.
When I was talking to officer Gomez, I felt like I actually had more information about this list than he had, which is not where I expected this conversation to go. Officer Gomez hadn’t spent a lot of time worrying about whether this whole thing was real or not. In fact, confusingly, he himself had felt pretty suspicious of the list of challenges from the beginning.
OFFICER GOMEZ: I know that’s not how TikTok works. Kids—you know, I know kids more than most—they can’t plan a week out, much less a year out.
ANNA: Oh? Okay. So, so, you were, you were skeptical of the list, but you still think of it as, like, a possibility?
OFFICER GOMEZ: Right. So, I know that this is not gonna happen like that.
OFFICER GOMEZ: But I wanted parents to see, hey, look. These are the possibilities. You need to talk to your kids.
OFFICER GOMEZ: Should we watch out? Should we talk about these things? Absolutely, right? This is a new world. And might it be “Slap a teacher”? Maybe. It might be something completely different, right? Put a thumbtack on their chair. Kids are kids, and they’re always gonna do things.
[MUSIC DROPS UNDER]
The problem was, when Gomez had posted this on his Facebook page, he hadn’t included any of the caveats that he was telling me in this conversation. He’d just posted the list, said these challenges were coming down the pipeline, and that people should talk to their kids about it. When I pushed him on the idea that he might have spread a harmful rumor, he didn’t seem concerned.
ANNA: I guess I’m curious just how you feel about posting information that you’re not totally sure if it’s totally true or not, like, on your Facebook feed.
OFFICER GOMEZ: So, what part would not be true?
ANNA: Just the fact that like, these, these, these challenges might not like, adhere to every month, or they might not take the exact form of “Slap a teacher on the backside,” or “Slap a teacher.” Like, there’s all of these caveats in there, but a teacher or a parent might not see that.
OFFICER GOMEZ: Okay. I am totally fine with erring on the, on the side of, this is a possibility.
GOMEZ: There’s no way I can tell the future. So, if I can’t be sure of it, am I not gonna put out warnings? No. I’m still gonna put out warnings.
Even though Officer Gomez thought what he was doing was harmless, his intentions didn’t end up mattering that much, because his post, it caught the attention of a lot of people. Alex, I thought that his Facebook page was just this weird little niche corner of the internet. But 40,000 people follow his account. And this post about the list was shared over 1,300 times.
ANNA: It starts spreading pretty significantly. He said that people from TikTok reached out to him to learn more about what he knew.
ANNA: So, basically—
ALEX: People from TikTok, the company?
ANNA: Yeah. Like one of the biggest apps in the world was treating Officer Gomez as an expert on this even though he really hadn’t looked into it much. He also said multiple law enforcement agencies reached out to learn more.
And the more I started trying to figure out where this thing had come from, the more I started to feel like it wasn’t students or kids who were spreading the idea of this challenge. It was adults.
[MUSIC FADES UNDER]
And in the days after officer Gomez posts the list, it really picked up pace on the internet in a pretty major way. Like countless Facebook pages talking about it. There’s Instagram accounts who are sharing things about it. There are Youtube videos that are made about it. And it sparked this whole conversation among teachers in the comments of all of these different posts on all of these different places on the internet about the validity of this list.
ALEX: About whether it’s real or not.
ANNA: Yeah, yeah. Like on one side, teachers were saying this list of challenges was fake and it was just scaring teachers unnecessarily. And then on the other side there were teachers who were saying they were nervous because a thing that actually does happen teachers do get hit by their students––
ANNA: TikTok challenge aside, it’s just a thing that happens in schools
ALEX: God what a no-win situation, it’s like you want to not inspire hysteria and actually give kids ideas about hitting their teachers but you also want to have a lot of caution.
ANNA: Yeah you also want to validate all of these teachers who are saying they’ve had these really awful experiences in schools. And when I was looking at all of the things being shared around this list, it felt like there was one thing that felt like it could help me make sense of all of this. And it was on one of the most popular versions of the list that was being spread around.
There was this paragraph on top of it that was attributing the first person to share this list, and really get the word out, to this superintendent near Fresno, California.
ALEX: Huh. Wow. Documentation.
ANNA: It was pinning it to a specific place in the country and a specific person.
ANNA: And so, I wondered...
ALEX: Is Fresno Ground Zero?
ANNA: Yeah, exactly.
After the break Fresno County California.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. So, Anna’s going to—
ANNA: No, I was going to say that! [laughing] I was gonna say that! Let me say, “Welcome back to the show!”
ALEX: Steamrolling ya. Go ahead.
ANNA: Welcome back to the show.
ALEX: Thank you.
ANNA: So, Alex—
ANNA: Before the break, I had learned that this list of challenges hadn’t been spread by teens on TikTok. The people who were really talking about this online were nervous teachers and parents.
ANNA: But I still wanted to know where they had gotten this idea from. And I’d found this lead, the name of a school district, where a lot of the lists that I had seen were pointing to as the beginning of this whole debacle. And these lists said, the superintendent of this school district, she is the one who is leading the charge against these challenges.
LORI VILLANUEVA: My name is Lori Villanueva, and I’m superintendent of the Coalinga-Huron Unified School District, and we are in Fresno County in Central California.
ANNA: Gotcha. Gotcha. So what is your job as superintendent like?
LORI: My — it's actually very exciting. I love being superintendent.
Lori’s been superintendent for this school district for about six years, which, she told me, is a long time. Most people apparently only last around two as superintendent. Lori has this friendly but authoritative energy.
And I wanted to understand how she had come to be the center of this list of challenges.
She told me it started after an extremely harrowing month of dealing with all of the bathroom vandalism, the Devious Licks. She said that the seven schools in her school district had been hit particularly hard by the challenge in September.
ANNA: And some of it had been the usual stuff— you know, like 46 missing soap dispensers— but then there was the vandalism that was a lot more frustrating to deal with.
LORI: One of the worst things was they were using red dye, so it stained the porcelain and the tile—
LORI: … to, to make the bathrooms look, like, red. You know, it was—we couldn't get it out.
ANNA: How did you tamp down on it?
LORI: What we did is we put every single available personnel that we possibly could, [ANNA: Mm-hmm.] we, we stationed at bathroom doors.
LORI: And so, our bus drivers that usually drive like, morning and afternoon, [ANNA: Hm.] we had them stationed at doors during the day.
LORI: We had, like, our cafeteria workers that get off a little bit earlier, we had them helping in the afternoon. So, every available hand that possibly could was stationed at bathroom doors.
Talking to Lori, I hadn’t really realized how expensive the Devious Lick trend could be. Like, for her, she had to spend that of this money overtime and supplies to fix the bathrooms, it was just a lot of money that she didn’t really have to spend on a dumb prank. And, just in general, Devious Licks sucked so much time and energy out of everybody around her, and for what?
ANNA: I've been trying to imagine while working on this story of, like, how I would react to this in high school. And I mean, to be honest, I was a bit of a goody two shoes, but I think I would have been really annoyed at the kids who did this and, like, annoyed that like I wasn't able to go to the bathroom, like, like with quite as much freedom [laughs] as I maybe would have been before or whatever.
LORI: Exactly. And actually, because of that, that's how we ended up getting the list of the other TikTok challenges.
We did have a good citizen come forward and go, like, “We don't like this. So, you know, heads up, here's what's being circulated.”
ANNA: Was it a student that gave you the list?
LORI: It was a student.
LORI: Yes, it was. Mm-hmm. So, a teacher that was trusted by the student, [ANNA: Uu-huh.] you know, just gave it, and, you know, the teacher passed it on.
ALEX: Wow. So, for the first time, this thing has bubbled up from the youth.
ANNA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
ALEX: Not from another parent reposting it.
ANNA: And just like, when the screenshot of those lists, like, arrived on your computer, do you remember how you felt when you, when you were first looking at it?
LORI: I do. I was flabbergasted.
LORI: And, um, I went from being kind of shocked at kind of the language and the items that are on there [ANNA: Uh-huh.] to becoming angry that now I had to spend more time [ANNA: Mm.] and more energy and more resources to try and counteract it.
[MUSIC DROPS UNDER]
ANNA: Lori sent me the list and it honestly reads more like a kid wrote it to me. All of the things that Elisa, the woman at the beginning of the story, was skeptical about, like how the word “backside” was on this list, um, that’s not on the thing we’re looking at, right?
ANNA: Like, October says, instead of “backside,” it says, “Smack a staff ass.”
ALEX: November: “Kiss ya, ya dude's girl at skool”. School is spelled S-K-O-O-L.
ALEX: Uh, December: “Deck the halls and show us yo balls at school halls.”
ALEX: There’s just so—there’s a verisimilitude that no adult could ever, could ever accomplish in this.
ANNA: and when I was looking at that, it made me wonder, you know, maybe the list that Elisa had gotten and the list that was being passed around the most, some adult had taken a list that looked more like this and edited it. Kind of PGed it, because this list that we’re looking at now –– very PG-13, and then put out that version instead.
ALEX: Ah ha. Ok.
And I still wanted to know if Lori had any insight into the more authentic, non-PG’d list. But it turned out, the investigation into that particular list hadn’t gotten very far.
ANNA: What, what sort of investigation did you do around the list?
LORI: So, the investigation around the list kind of died because we didn’t want to really expose the students.
ANNA: Okay. Do, do you have a sense of where they got the list?
LORI: I do not know.
ANNA: What would you say to teachers who are saying, like, “This list isn’t real. Like, I don’t think that this is going to happen because of TikTok”?
LORI: Right. I would say that it’s better to be prepared and aware [ANNA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm] than surprised and sorry.
At this point I do feel like I have a pretty strong Idea of what happened here. So, here’s my best guess.
It all starts with Devious Licks, which is a real trend that started with a real kid stealing masks from their school and putting on TikTok. But then, you know, it takes off organically and other kids start stealing all kinds of bizarre things from their schools it and gets out of control and that slowly shuts down.
ALEX: The meme wave passes, people have lost interest in stealing for the sake of stealing.
ANNA: Exactly. And then this list of challenges pops up, not on TikTok, but it’s trying to kind of ride the wave of the devious licks trend, you know trying to be like an alley-oop.
ALEX: [EXTENDED] Oh. So this is like a failed attempt. This is like a boy band that never popped off.
ANNA: Well it probably starts as some kind of not very funny edgelordy joke that most kids don’t know about, but where gains traction, where this list actually becomes really popular is with adults like Lori who, when she got ahold of it, passed it around to school administrators and other adults and she thinks maybe it got out from there. But she also says she wasn’t the only one, she’d heard of other admins at other schools who had gotten a version of this list.
And then what happens next, this thing springs onto a new level: from principal offices to Facebook. Starting on the morning of September 22nd, you can watch this list ping pong wildly across Facebook in just a 24 hour period.
In the morning, a principal in California posted it to a private principal leadership Facebook group. Then, at 5P.M., it’s on this Facebook page full of cops talking about drugs and alcohol. And then, at 10P.M.,Officer Gomez takes a screenshot of a couple of other Facebook posts as evidence, types out the list and posts it himself. And by that point, it’s just everywhere. It’s on Facebook and Instagram, it spills onto the local news.
NEWS CLIP 4: New details now about a new TikTok challenge that starts tomorrow. It calls for students to smack their teachers...I can’t even believe it
When we tried to fact check all those headlines from the beginning of the story about kids slapping their teachers because of a TikTok trend, and when we did that, no one would give us any evidence for the claims that the assaults were related to TikTok. In one case, the school district said flat out that the slapping case hadn’t ended up being related to TikTok.
ANNA: When I reached out to Facebook about this list spreading on their platform, they said that they actually hadn’t seen it, but they told us they have policies against posts that coordinate harm or posts that promote or encourage dangerous viral challenges. I ended up sending them some screenshots of posts I had but they haven’t responded in time of us publishing this episode.
Of course, the thing that we do have plenty of evidence of is that a major place where this was being spread was on Facebook, and Instagram, and it was being spread by adults, many of whom had good intentions.
Which makes me think that it's completely possible that in some of these slapping cases, the kids learned about it not from their peers but from worried adults.
ALEX: Oh that sucks.
ANNA: Yeah. One of the few TikToks that I actually did find about this, um, which I want to show you, Alex?
ALEX: Ooh yeah. Show me. Okay.
[MUSIC FROM CLIP]
All right, it says, “Bro, literally all my teachers were talking about a new trend, smack a staff member. Bish, I didn't even know that was a trend!” Uh—
ANNA: Right. Can you read some of the comments of that video?
ALEX: Uh, “Who lied to them? I just got an email about it.” “It's not a trend, they making it up now.” “My mom talked about it, too. It must have been a Facebook post by some random parent that blew up.” “Bruh, it wasn't a trend, they just giving us ideas at this point.” I don't—”I didn't even know this was a thing until they told us.” Um, “definitely ain't no trend. They want everything to be about them, oh my god.” [ALEX, ANNA LAUGHING]
ALEX: “Bro, I feel like they definitely made this up.” For real, my school said that on the intercom.” This is amazing.
[ZOOM ENTRANCE NOISE]
ELISA: Hey! how are you?
ANNA: Good, how are you?
ELISA: I’m good thank you.
Now It’s the end of October now and I called Elisa, the woman who’d originally come to us with a question of what she should believe about this whole challenge.
Anna: First of all, I'm curious how the past couple weeks have been for you.
[MUSIC DROPS UNDER]
Elisa: Quiet. Yeah. I mean, they've been busy in terms of like actual work, but they're. I haven't heard anything as far as like, you know, no staff members that I know of have gotten smacked on the backside or anywhere else.
ANNA: Well, that's that's good news, right? But, yeah and I just wanted to tell you some of the stuff that I’ve learned, um..
ELISA: I’m anxious to hear!
ANNA: Well, so okay. To just kind of walk you through, after we got of the phone, obviously did the thing where I...
So I told her everything I’d been able to figure out about the validity of these challenges and where it came from.
ANNA: I guess I'm curious why do you think this happened and this really took root now?
ELISA: It's like we're all living in this period of uncertainty. There was already uncertainty to begin with. COVID just upped the ante. I’m trying to think of the word like, because it’s like there's nothing to hold on to. It's. Disorienting. [ANNA: Hmm.] And I don’t know if finding that list and sharing it was an expression of trying to, maybe, kinda giving those feelings to go, and maybe trying to see if we can prevent this bad thing from happening.
On one hand, it’s easy for teenagers and the rest of us to laugh at all these adults who are freaking out about this list. But on the other hand, for the past couple years, throughout COVID, those very adults –– teachers, other school workers, have been making decisions with very little information in an effort to keep all of their students, and themselves, safe.
ELISA:I talk about this with kids often [ANNA: Hmm] it's to gauge the actual size of the problem and then gauge the reaction to it. We don’t have a reliable way of gauging the size of our problems right now. Sometimes you lash out when you shouldn’t. And you react...you end up reacting in ways to things that turn out to be not so threatening
ANNA: I mean, it feels weird to thank you for letting me go on this quest but thanks for telling us about it.
ELISA: Well, thanks for taking us seriously.
ANNA: Of course. We'll just we'll be will be in touch about like the rest of if we need anything else from you. And I hope you have a good evening.
Elisa: You, too. So is this going to be like an actual episode then?
ANNA: Oh yeah. Oh, this is going to be an actual episode..
ELISA: [LAUGHING] Awesome.
Anna: So yeah!
ELISA: Thank you so much!
ANNA: Yeah, thank you. OK. Have a good evening,
Elisa: Y'all, too. OK, bye.
[MUSIC CONTINUES, FADES INTO CREDITS MUSIC]
ANNA, CREDITS: This episode of Reply All was produced by Noor Gill, Phia Bennin and me, Anna Foley. It was edited by Damiano Marchetti. And, of course, the episode wouldn’t have happened without the rest of the Reply All team: Alex Goldman, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Tim Howard, Jessica Yung and Lisa Wang. Our intern is Esperanza Rosenbaum.
The show is hosted by Emmanuel Dzotsi and Alex Goldman. This episode was mixed by Rick Kwan, with fact-checking by Isabel Cristo, music and sound design by Luke Williams. Additional music by Breakmaster Cylinder and Marianna Romano.
Special thanks to Abbie Richards, she’s a TikTok misinformation researcher. You should definitely check out her TikToks, they are extremely interesting. Also, special thanks to: Arielle Foder, Eileen Vidal, María del Carmen Needham and Wendy Zuckerman.
Also, this is our last week with producer Noor Gil. We have loved having Noor on the show, she is extremely smart, she is extremely good at her job. We wish her all of the luck at what she does next.
Thank you all for listening, we’ll see you in a few weeks.