A loosely organised campaign originating on the TikTok social network is being credited with greatly inflating expected turnout at Donald Trump’s sparsely attended Saturday night rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Teens on the platform for sharing short videos and other social media sites shared posts over the past two weeks calling for people to sign up for a ticket to Mr Trump’s event, but then not show up.
In particular, fans of Korean pop music — Kpop — are thought to have co-ordinated to register en masse. It was the latest act of cunningly effective online political activism from an unlikely source: young Kpop obsessives who have become increasingly adept at harnessing the power of social media to engage in politics.
The Kpop fans were previously credited with disrupting attempts by police in Dallas to solicit pictures and videos of “illegal activity” at protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement. After the police department asked people to download an app to submit material, Kpoppers flooded it with “fancam” videos — clips of performances that focus on a single member of the group. The app was later taken offline because of “technical difficulties”, the police said.
Trump campaign chairman Brad Parscale denied the Saturday night rally had been “trolled”, claiming the media had been “duped” by a “lame attempt at hacking”. He said the campaign had discounted “bogus numbers” from the attendance projections.
“The fact is that a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of Covid and protesters, coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally,” Mr Parscale wrote in a statement on Sunday morning.
Expectations had been high for a bumper turnout at what was Mr Trump’s first rally in months. Ahead of the event, Mr Parscale wrote on Twitter that sign-ups had “just passed 800,000 tickets. Biggest data haul and rally sign-up of all time by 10x”.
Yet it appears that at least some of those sign-ups were prompted by a call to action from TikTok user Mary Jo Laupp. The 51-year-old posts using the hashtag “#TikTokGrandma”.
On June 11, she urged her followers — in a clip that was viewed more than 2m times — to apply for two free tickets to the event, using their mobile phone numbers, and replying “STOP” to the inevitable deluge of text messages that would subsequently be sent by the campaign.
“Go reserve tickets now, leave him standing there alone on the stage,” Ms Laupp wrote.
The plan was quickly embraced by Kpop “Stans” — a catch-all term for diehard fans of pop stars or celebrities, inspired by Stan, a 2000 track by the American rapper Eminem.
On Saturday, pictures taken within the 19,000-capacity BOK Center showed many empty seats and a large amount of floor space in the area in front of the podium. Outside, an “overflow” event, where the president and vice-president Mike Pence were scheduled to address supporters unable to access the arena, was cancelled.
Mr Parscale blamed “radical protesters” for preventing supporters from getting into the event by blocking lines to metal detectors. According to Reuters and other news organisations, disruption to those entering the arena was minor.
“Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign [with] fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID,” wrote Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter, in response to Mr Parscale.
She thanked “Kpop allies” for “contributions in the fight for justice too”.
Dubbing Mr Trump’s speech the “Emptysburgh Address”, former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt wrote on Twitter: “My 16 year old daughter and her friends in Park City Utah have hundreds of tickets. You have been rolled by America’s teens.”
TikTok, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, is increasingly being used for political activity, despite its policies banning official campaign activity or advertising.
Last month, former Disney executive Kevin Mayer was appointed as TikTok’s new chief executive. The move was designed to soften criticism about the network’s Chinese ownership and concerns over the data gathered by the app, which has been downloaded more than 2bn times.