Rows of empty seats at US President Donald Trump’s comeback rally in Tulsa may have had something to do with K-pop fans and TikTok users playing a prank.
Mr Trump’s campaign team prepared the Oklahoma venue for capacity crowds on Saturday in what was to be his first campaign rally since the coronavirus lockdown was lifted.
But even before the event began, organisers began dismantling a spill-out stage, where the president had planned to give a second speech.
Instead, Mr Trump spoke before supporters in a stadium that was less than two thirds full. Plans for additional events outside the in the 19,000-seat BOK Centre stadium were cancelled as crowds dwindled.
Korean pop fans and users of the TikTok video-sharing app said they sabotaged the rally by signing up for tickets and then did not show. The viral campaign, spread on social media, may be responsible for potentially hundreds of thousands of prank registrations, The New York Times said.
"The teens of America have struck a savage blow against @realDonaldTrump," veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt tweeted. "All across America teens ordered tickets to this event. The fools on the campaign bragged about a million tickets. lol."
The trend was triggered when Mary Jo Laupp, from Iowa, posted a TikTok video on June 11, after the Trump campaign team sent out a tweet asking supporters to register for the rally.
“I recommend 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,” Ms Laupp said in the video.
Overnight, the clip went viral as teens shared spread the message, deleting the posts after 24 to 48 hours to prevent the Trump campaign from catching on.
The online K-pop network has become increasingly active politically in recent months, organising to drown out right-wing hashtags and raise millions of dollars for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In May, they spammed the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag with K-pop videos to make it harder for white supremacists to find each other and share their messaging online.
YouTuber Elijah Daniel told The New York Times that the plan to sink Mr Trump's rally "spread mostly through Alt TikTok – we kept it on the quiet side where people do pranks and a lot of activism.
“K-pop Twitter and Alt TikTok have a good alliance where they spread information amongst each other very quickly. They all know the algorithms and how they can boost videos to get where they want,” Mr Daniel, who participated in the campaign, said.
Brad Parscale, Mr Trump's re-election campaign manager initially boasted of the huge turnout anticipated at the event, tweeting that it would be the "biggest data haul and rally signup of all time by 10x."
The Trump campaign uses sign-up data to direct advertisements to supporters but social media users provided tips on registering for tickets with false information to avoid being bombarded by spam messaging from the Trump team.
Participants who didn't conceal their personal details when registering, reported being flooded with advertising material from the Trump campaign.
Mr Parscale said on Saturday night that “radical protesters” had interfered with attendance but rubbished claims that TikTok users were behind empty seats at the rally.
"Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance don't know what they're talking about.... these phoney ticket requests never factor into our thinking," he said in a statement on Sunday.
But others credited the efforts of youth participating in the scheme. “Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted in response.
“KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice.”
The Trump campaign responded by accusing Ms Ocasio-Cortez of promoting the interference of a foreign-owned platform in US elections. TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company called ByteDance.
Joe Biden's campaign denied any involvement in the social media scheme. “Donald Trump has abdicated leadership and it is no surprise that his supporters have responded by abandoning him,” his spokesman, Andrew Bates said in a statement.