How We Teens Used TikTok to Prank the Trump Rally

By  |  June 23, 2020, 4:12 PM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


Teens on TikTok last week played a major prank on the Trump campaign in classic Gen-Z fashion. During his most recent rally, we organized over social media to disrupt his Tulsa rally last weekend.

TikTok does often have the character of a silly app used only for comedy. And non-users often aim to dismiss or discredit it because of that. But teens are able to use every form of social media to spread political opinions, and now tips for taking political action.

Organizing this recent action was easy. Last week, while scrolling on TikTok, I saw at least three videos showing how to find Trump’s website and register to receive a ticket.

The goal was to fool the Trump campaign about how many people wanted to attend, so in the end, seats would be empty. I immediately reserved two tickets with my own phone number and then six more with my family members’ numbers. Then I shared the concept on a different form of social media, my private story on Snapchat. As a result five of my friends did the same thing. 

Me seeing one video on TikTok ultimately led to 45 tickets being reserved. With hundreds of thousands of others seeing the same videos, the power of teens on social media becomes clear. In the end, local officials estimated that only 6200 people attended the rally, in a venue that could seat 19,000.

TikTok’s political power for teens comes from how the app works. The Tulsa rally numbers seem to have come as a surprise to the campaign because the possibility of a prank like this was unknown. TikTok’s main demographic is young people.  Its algorithms show videos based on someone’s interests and connections. That made it less likely that people from the campaign would have been able to go “undercover” and detect this effort. TikTok has many sides, which reach many different kinds of people. 

Unless another user was consistently liking the posts of teens like me, it would have been difficult to see most of their content, or in this case,  the resulting plans. The app itself is marketed and created for teens. Older people generally seem to agree that its layout is confusing for them. (Many feel the same way about Snapchat.) So TikTok becomes a perfect place for like-minded teens to talk and plan together without others knowing. 

Using TikTok as a political platform is a new idea in the United States, though it has been used that way in other countries in the past. Because the app is relatively new, only now are people like me realizing what it can do. The effort got extensive coverage [here are stories in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal]. But even though the Trump campaign and the political establishment have now been generally alerted to what can happen, such behavior is unlikely to stop.  

Teens organizing on the app and elsewhere will continue to seek an element of surprise. So embarrassing Trump this way probably isn’t over yet. Already I see signs in TikTok and elsewhere that teens are signing up for the Students for Trump Movement and Mike Pence’s rallies. Many are more actively reporting posts on Trump’s social media that they find inappropriate, in hopes of getting him banned there. And even when such efforts fail to effectively disrupt an event, they can complicate the Trump campaign’s efforts to collect voter data and effectively plan future rallies.  

Here are examples of how teens are spreading such ideas now on TikTok. Both these videos already have hundreds of thousands of views and likes.

Via TikTok user @caprhicorn
Via TikTok user @samppson

Such new attempts may lack the original element of surprise, but they give us a chance to take action. Many of us may be too young to vote Trump out this year, but we can still make our opposition clear through social media.

Julia Morgan-Canales is a high school student interning at Techonomy this summer. 

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