Soon after the campaign announced the event via Twitter on June 11, K-pop fans began spreading the registration information on social media along with notes encouraging people to sign up without intending to attend.
The next day, a woman named MaryJo Laupp posted to TikTok a video in which she said, in part, “I recommend that 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 there alone on the stage.” (As of Sunday evening, the video has been seen more than 2 million times.) Soon enough, many young TikTokers were posting their own videos showing them doing just that.
Abigail Reed, a recent high school graduate in Indianapolis who registered for the rally despite no plans to go, said even though the movement “grew pretty large” on TikTok, she still “didn’t expect it to be as big as it was.” The 18-year-old noticed people on the app submitting multiple requests, trying to inflate the numbers as much as possible.
On June 15, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted that they had received more than a million “requests” to attend the rally. And members of the campaign, including the president himself, repeated the potential “million” number in several media appearances during the lead-up to Saturday.
But according to the Tulsa Fire Marshal’s Office, fewer than 6,200 people actually showed up. The New York Times and CNN both ran stories largely crediting TikTokers and K-pop fans for the disparity in expectations.
Those eager to insult Trump reveled in the news. In response to a tweet from Parscale blaming “radical protestors” and “a week of apocalyptic media coverage” for the unexpectedly low turnout, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote, “Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID. KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too.”
Soon enough, several Twitter trends emerged around the topic. The Trump campaign released a statement about the claims: “Reporters who wrote gleefully about TikTok and K-pop fans — without contacting the campaign for comment — behaved unprofessionally and were willing dupes to the charade. Registering for a rally means you’ve RSVPed with a cell phone 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. These phony ticket requests never factor into our thinking.”
As the story spread throughout social media, it became slightly twisted — like a message at the end of a game of telephone. The common refrain shifted from “TikTokers and K-pop fans lead Trump to overestimate his crowd” to “TikTokers and K-pop fans are the reason fewer than 6,200 people showed up to the event.” The former assertion is almost certainly true to some degree, but the latter is not only unlikely but probably false.
As a result, the narrative that TikTokers and K-poppers were the sole reason the rally was poorly attended also drew its fair share of skeptics, who pointed out that the reality is probably much more complicated.
“People didn’t attend the rally because people decided not to attend the rally. It had nothing to do with TikTok kids or HR Pufnstuf shenanigans,” tweeted “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough. “Enthusiasm for Trump is down and pandemic cases are up. The campaign raised expectations too high and embarrassed themselves.”
Writer Parker Malloy also put the blame on the campaign. “You’re giving way too much credit to people on social media and not nearly enough blame on Trump’s failure of a campaign for this one,” she tweeted. “The actual story is that the campaign used to be able to count on massive crowds to show up wherever he went, and figured that this first rally back would be a huge hit. I sincerely doubt they were making decisions based on RSVPs.”
The actual story is that the campaign used to be able to count on massive crowds to show up wherever he went, and figured that this first rally back would be a huge hit. I sincerely doubt they were making decisions based on RSVPs.— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) June 21, 2020
Daniel Radosh, a senior writer for “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” tweeted that “the campaign promoted signing up as a signifier of support, which probably got a lot of Trump supporters to request tickets who never really had the commitment to follow through. The same way people RSVP for Facebook events as a Like.”
It’s impossible to know — and irresponsible to speculate — exactly how much influence the TikTok and K-pop fan campaigns had on the actual attendance of the event without seeing every single request receipt. But a few factors suggest that the prank may have at least partly inflated the predicted numbers.
Entry was not ticket-based, but first-come, first-serve, so there were infinite “tickets” available. “They emailed their entire campaign list the Tulsa invite, which also helps explain why a million people signed up. People click buttons,” former Obama administration official Tim Fullerton told The Washington Post. “As someone who has done this before, it’s something that happens.”
Instead, Fullerton said, the online movement probably “made it seem like there were more people interested than they thought, which probably means [the Trump campaign] did less to drive people to the event."
The idea of organizing online to overwhelm a system with requests or reviews is nothing new. Fans or detractors have long grouped up to flood IMDb with reviews of movies that haven’t yet been released as a means of supporting or diminishing them. K-pop fans recently clogged racist hashtags with funny GIFs, rendering them useless. And, indeed, Trump’s critics have often inundated social media with images of empty seats at his rallies.
What’s different now is the use of TikTok, a social media behemoth that skews younger, as an organizing platform. It’s dominated by Gen Z in a manner unmatched by other apps — and there can be real power there.
“The bigger story, long-term, is that it’s really impressive to see young people using TikTok as an organizing tool. And I do think that we're going to see a lot of that in the lead-up to November. That's a difficult audience to reach, so it could be a powerful tool,” Fullerton said.
“They’re using their voice in a new and different way and engaging people,” he added. “They clearly did something that hadn’t been done before."