Trump campaign dismisses TikTok troll, but who’s having the last laugh?
President Donald Trump's June 20, 2020 reelection campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, drew less-than-expected crowds. © Nicholas Kamm, AFP

President Donald Trump's re-election team has dismissed claims that a social media campaign by young Tik-Tok users and K-Pop fans was behind the low turnout for his “comeback” Tulsa rally. But the denial is being taken less seriously than the original prank.

The Trump presidency kicked off with a showdown on the crowd size at his January 2017 inauguration, forcing news organizations to devote resources to debunk the president’s claim that his swearing-in ceremony attracted more crowds than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The 45th US president’s first term is winding down with another crowd size matters rumpus, sparked on a social media network dominated by teens and tweens lip-syncing to music videos and exposed largely by parents discovering what their kids were up to in a virtual space for fans of Korean popular music or K-Pop.

“TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally,” announced a New York Times headline the morning after the US president held his first reelection campaign rally since the Covid-19 crisis gripped the country.

The event at the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa was expected to attract more than a million supporters. But the thin numbers and sea of empty blue seats inside the hall forced organizers to make last-minute changes on Saturday, including scrapping a plan to have Trump and Vice President Mike Pence address an outdoor overflow rally.

There were plenty of reasons for the poor showing. By holding an indoor event, Trump was ignoring health warnings and six of his campaign staffers had tested positive for Covid-19 shortly before the rally.

The event was also being held on the Juneteenth weekend, which marks the emancipation of slaves in the US. The country has been gripped by anti-discrimination protests following the killing of George Floyd by police officers. The venue choice of Tulsa – site of a 1921 massacre that left around 300 black people dead and 10,000 homeless – had upset the African American community and Black Lives Matter protests were expected in the city.

But a day after the event, US media reported another, previously unheard of reason. “Hundreds of teenage TikTok users and K-pop fans say they’re at least partially responsible” for the poor showing, the New York Times reported.

Users of the social networking app and fans of Korean pop music groups “claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets” for the rally “as a prank”, the paper revealed. “After the Trump campaign’s official account @TeamTrump posted a tweet asking supporters to register for free tickets using their phones on June 11, K-pop fan accounts began sharing the information with followers, encouraging them to register for the rally — and then not show.”

‘Let’s see if he will actually boast these numbers’

The Trump 2020 campaign has denied the manipulation claim, with campaign director Brad Parscale noting: "Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance, don't know what they're talking about or how our rallies work."

Parscale’s statement explained that, “Registering for a rally means you've RSVPed [confirmed attendance] with a cellphone number and we constantly weed out bogus numbers, as we did with tens of thousands at the Tulsa rally, in calculating our possible attendee pool."

The campaign denial, however, underscored the age and perception gap between pranksters and target.

The kids, it appeared, were having the last laugh as the adults seemed to miss the point.

In an interview with the BBC, Elijah Daniel, a 26-year-old YouTuber who participated in the prank, was asked if the social media campaign was completely responsible for the thousands of empty seats at the Bank of Oklahoma Center.

“I think it’s lack of interest in him,” said Daniel, referring to Trump, with a laugh. “I think that the large campaign that the K-Pop community and the TikTok community did was more of showing how he [Trump] boasts his numbers, including fake ones that were clearly inflated….it was more of kind of like a ‘let’s see if he will actually boast these numbers’ type of a thing.”

‘Leave him standing alone there’

The original idea for the mass ticket troll, however, may have come not from a teen but from an Iowa grandmother upset that the Trump rally was being held on the Juneteenth weekend.

On June 12, Mary Jo Laupp, 51, from Fort Dodge, Iowa, posted a video on TikTok encouraging people to book two free tickets to the Tulsa event by calling in from their cell phones. "All of those of us that want to see this 19,000 seat auditorium barely filled or completely empty go reserve tickets now and leave him standing alone there on the stage," said the Iowa grandmother.

Laupp’s call promptly went viral among K-Pop fans who activated social media networks to the cause. When registrations passed 800,000, Parscale tweeted that it was the "Biggest data haul and rally signup of all time by 10x. Saturday is going to be amazing."

But when Saturday’s event turned out to be less than amazing, Parscale’s statement that the social media pranksters “don't know what they're talking about or how our rallies work,” was dismissed by people who clearly did know the details of campaign data gathering.

In a detailed Twitter thread, a web designer specialised in data processing explained how the Trump campaign’s assertion that “we constantly weed out bogus numbers” is easier said than done.

Noting the importance of accurate data, Claire Ryan explained that “when your data is corrupted or inaccurate, and you have no way of filtering it out. It means insights derived from the dataset are 100% junk.”

Ryan noted that while the Trump campaign may have expected “some level of trolling,” the extent of the subversion meant that a lot of information was “now suspect” before concluding, “I can’t think of any better example of the power of the people in the modern world than this."