President Trump says TikTok is kaput in America.
The president has vowed to ban the app as soon as today. He and other officials have cited national security concerns for doing this, publicly expressing worry that the Chinese-owned company will share user data with the Chinese government.
But what if there’s another reason why Trump wants to turn off TikTok, something driven not by high-minded policy but by something as simple as hurt feelings.
A theory explaining all this has quietly and persistently circulated among TikTokers since the ban was first discussed a few weeks ago: What if this has nothing to do with China, nothing to do with national security? What if this does have everything to do with Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June? The event was supposed to mark a return to the campaign assemblies that the president covets, a comeback show of force with nearly 20,000 people in attendance after months of Covid 19 lockdown. And it was totally ruined for him by TikTokers and other young people online who coordinated a campaign to register for tickets to the event and never show up. So, what if the ban on TikTok is retaliation for that?
It’s a theory. And surely no one other than Trump and perhaps a few other White House denizens understand the president’s true motivations for the ban. But as a hypothesis, it makes sense and has a compelling timeline.
“I think his people have told him enough that ‘Yeah, it did have an effect on your Tulsa rally,’” says Mary Jo Laupp, 51, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, who was an unlikely chief organizer of the movement on TikTok against Trump’s rally. “I think that these Gen Zers made him look bad.”
Or as Trevor Slack, a 26-year-old in Los Angeles who reserved six tickets to the event and did not attend, puts it: “Seems like he got pretty butt-hurt.”
What exactly happened? In June, Trump announced he wanted to have a rally in Tulsa on June 19, a day celebrated as a holiday commemorating the end of slavery. Trump’s decision to have it that day—in a city with a painful, violent history of racism—angered people, and in the end, he relented, somewhat, moving it to the next day.
His decision did not stop a campaign that quickly formed on TikTok and Twitter in mid-June about a week before the rally. Its goal was straight forward: Flood the Trump website for reserving tickets with fake names, phone numbers and emails and then never attend the rally. Theoretically, it would give the Trump campaign false hopes for a large crowd leading up to the event and make them look foolish when it was sparsely attended.
On Twitter, fans of K-Pop spread the message far and wide. On TikTok, Laupp and others did the same thing. Laupp’s video was viewed almost 1 million times, one of the most widely shared of the calls to action on that app. “We had families in England reserving tickets to come to this rally, teenagers in Australia that saw the video and jumped on the bandwagon and found Oklahoma zip codes and U.S. phone numbers to reserve tickets with,” she says. “This thing went worldwide.”
Shortly before June 20, the Trump campaign said it had nearly 1 million people registered to attend. But when the big night came, the BOK Center in Tulsa filled to perhaps to a third of its total capacity. Televised broadcasts showed Trump at a podium framed by large swaths of empty blue seats. The online campaign against him had worked, though Laupp and other TikTokers are fully aware that their efforts aren’t the only reason that attendance was low. Surely the pandemic kept a few people home; the Trump campaign blamed it on protests in Tulsa, though reporters there that night identified few protests happening.
Now, here’s where things get interesting: About two weeks later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the first Trump official to talk publicly about a possible TikTok ban. This marked a dramatic escalation in the federal government’s stance on TikTok, which had been available in the U.S. for two years prior. Previously, different branches of the armed forces had banned it from government-issued phones, and a couple Republican senators had been vocal about their concerns over TikTok. It’s not clear if Trump even knew TikTok existed until the Tulsa rally. For instance, in the great many messages he has sent on Twitter, he still has never once mentioned the app.
But it would’ve been impossible for him not to know about it after Tulsa, the rally’s disappointing turnout linked to TikTok across the media that Trump obsessives over: CNN, The New York Times NYT , CBS VIAC . The internet had trolled the president, publicly embarrassing a man who does not take kindly to public slights.
And, thus, in a matter of weeks, TikTok went from the object of ire for a few conservative politicians eager for a bit of spotlight—to being identified by the White House as a large national security threat that necessitated quick action. And now to the ban on TikTok that Trump says will arrive any minute.
The retaliation theory holds up well. And for the community of TikTokers who’ve spent time mulling it over, they’re now considering another question: Was it worth it? Was poking the president—foiling his plans—worth losing something that has grown from a source of entertainment into a wellspring of political activism?
“The kids will think so,” Laupp says, confidently.
As it turns out, she could not be more right. “If TikTok goes down, it was fun while it lasted, and we did get to stick it to Donald Trump,” says Sawyer McDuffie, a rising junior at the University of South Carolina. McDuffie, 20, was an eager participant in the Trump trolling, reserving two tickets online with no intentions of going. “If anything being a member of Gen Z has taught me is that no matter what rules they make, we will get around them,” he says. “Whenever they banned Instagram and Snapchat on school Wi Fi,” in high school, “we would just get VPN. Whenever they told us we couldn’t go to certain websites on our school laptops, we would figure out a way to get around it.”
Trevor Slack, the 26-year-old in Los Angeles who also snapped up tickets, points out that influencers have already begun pointing their followings to their presence on other platforms and thinks it’s likely that the anti-Trump movement that sprung on TikTok could migrate elsewhere. “There are a million other apps out there.”