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TikTok Prank May Account For Trump Rally's Low Attendance Rate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump's campaign had high hopes for its rally in Tulsa, Okla., over the weekend. Ahead of the event, the president's campaign manager said more than a million people had expressed interest online. But the Tulsa Fire Department estimated that far fewer people showed up - about 6,000. As NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, an effort to prank the campaign organized on the social media app TikTok may have played a role.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: At a high school in Iowa, Mary Jo Laupp directs musical theater production. And she's not a fan of President Trump. When she heard about Trump planning a campaign launch event in Tulsa, Okla., she hatched a plan.

MARY JO LAUPP: I have a friend who's been known to do the whole register for two tickets for the other guy's rally and not go, her own little mini rebellion. Nobody ever knows she does it, but she feels good.

ALLYN: And Laupp thought she would feel good if she did the same thing. She jumped on TikTok, the favorite app of the kids at her high school, and issued a call to action.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

LAUPP: 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. What do you say?

ALLYN: And it caught on. Prominent TikTokkers (ph) shared it. Fans of Korean pop with large Twitter followings boosted it. A day after making the video, 300,000 people had said they were interested in the event. The Trump campaign would go on to say that more than a million people had requested tickets.

Steve Schmidt is a political strategist in Park City, Utah, who has worked on Republican presidential campaigns but strongly opposes President Trump. Schmidt was talking to his 16-year-old daughter who told him, yeah, even I got a ticket to Trump's rally as a joke.

STEVE SCHMIDT: She goes, well, all the kids do - you know, everybody. Like, there's hundreds of kids who have probably thousands of tickets just in Park City - says it's all over TikTok.

ALLYN: At the Bank of Oklahoma Center on Saturday, Trump canceled plans to address an outdoor overflow section because there was almost no one there. Inside the arena, a crowd of people was surrounded by sparsely filled upper rafters. Tulsa city officials say the crowd was about 6,200 people. The Trump campaign told NPR that fears over the coronavirus and protesters is what really depressed turnout. The campaign says it didn't cap registration, and it was first come, first serve, saying the phony TikTok-fueled sign-ups was not a factor in their planning.

And it is true that online enthusiasm doesn't always translate into a large rally crowd, says Tim Fullerton. He's a former Obama presidential campaign staffer.

TIM FULLERTON: You know, you always get more RSVPs for an event than end up showing up. It's just the nature. It's called the flake rate.

ALLYN: The flake rate, a global pandemic, a massive online prank - a lot could have shrunk attendance. But Schmidt, the political strategist, says there is no doubt TikTokkers duped the Trump campaign.

SCHMIDT: It was really an act of civil disobedience, of subversion by young people who understand the consequences and are appalled and disgusted by the comportment and behavior of this president.

ALLYN: Back in Iowa, Laupp, who is 51, has become known as TikTok Grandma. She argues that it's not important to ever know for sure the extent of the online prank's impact.

LAUPP: Whatever the real reasons were, we'll probably never all know. It's probably somewhere in the middle of all of this, that it was a little bit of everything that played in. But I do know that there are 15-, 16-, 17- on up to 24-, 25-year-old kids that are saying, we did this.

ALLYN: Laupp says that feeling will lead to more online activism by young people, including around get-out-the-vote efforts - at least for those old enough to vote.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOJA CAT'S "SAY SO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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