Trump, TikTok and the truth
The apparent gutting of US President Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally by social-media-savvy teens raises uncomfortable questions about perceptions of truth and misinformation
The Akita prefecture on the coast of Japan is famous for rice farming and sake brewing, and also, perhaps not coincidentally, for having the highest consumption of sake in Japan.
In 1973, the Virgin Mary appeared to Sister Agnes Katsuko Sasagawa, who reported seeing a statue of Our Lady of Akita "illuminate", and suffered stigmata (the marks some Christians believe correspond to those left on Christ’s body by the crucifixion). Despite being deaf, Sister Agnes heard messages from Mary. The statue also wept tears, and did so on another 100 occasions — one of which was broadcast on Japanese national television.
In December 1973, Tokyo Channel 12 videotaped the weeping statue, which also displayed bleeding stigmata, such as a wound in the form of a cross, in the middle of the Virgin’s palm. Some enterprising forensic theologian checked the blood type of the statue, which turned out to be type B.
This sort of thing is called a Marian apparition — an appearance or appearances (apparently she does encores) by Mary, the mother of Jesus. For a sighting to qualify as an apparition, Mary must, in the quaint formulation of the Catholic church, appear to that person "not in a world apart as in a dream, and not as a modification of a concrete object as in the case of a weeping icon or moving statue, but as part of the environment, without apparent connection to verifiable visual stimuli".
The church, with its long history of dealing with false prophets and snake-oil salesmen, doesn’t just take your word for it: there’s a formal evaluation process for claimed apparitions.
In 1984, the convent’s Bishop John Shojiro Ito recognised "the supernatural character of a series of mysterious events concerning the statue of the Holy Mother Mary" and authorised "the veneration of the Holy Mother of Akita" within the Roman Catholic diocese of Niigata.
At roughly the same time, Bobby Ewing was killed off in the final episode of the 1984/1985 season of Dallas, the hugely successful television show that ran from 1978 to 1991 in SA.
Bobby, played by Patrick Duffy, was a popular character, and his death caused much lamentation at a time when people would have blanched with incomprehension at the way the recent series Game of Thrones killed off its main characters.
Bobby only stayed dead for a year, and was resurrected to the show in a much-analysed and controversial shower scene, where it turned out that his death — and indeed almost the entire 1985/1986 season — had been a dream of Bobby’s ex-wife, Pamela Barnes Ewing.
We might not remember it now but at the time it was a huge scandal, touted as another nail in the coffin of narrative realism. If you couldn’t trust TV, what could you trust?
At this stage, you might be wondering where we’re going with this. The appearance of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues, resurrected soap opera stars. Allow me one more stop before we arrive at something simulating a point.
On the night of June 20 2020, 6,200 supporters attended US President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, filling barely a third of the 19,000-seater auditorium.
Just a few days before, Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, had boastfully tweeted that there had been more than 1-million ticket requests for the Make America Great Again rally.
So convinced were they of the popularity of their rally, the Trump team actually scheduled an overflow area, which they had to ignominiously take down before the event even started.
Trump has often tried to turn the same tricks as the Virgin Mary and Bobby Ewing (now that I read that sentence aloud, it sounds weird). He relies on the propensity of his base to see the world in the way he tells them — to follow along as the standards for what constitutes "the real" change at his whim.
He started his presidency by blatantly lying about the size of his inauguration crowd, for example. As with the tears of the Virgin, that inauguration was televised, and Trump told us what we were seeing.
But what Trump’s failed rally, intended to kick-start his re-election campaign, has shown, is that the people doing the lying have made themselves susceptible to being hoodwinked by their own lies.
There are varying explanations for the failure of the rally, from the Trump team’s clearly concocted excuse that "protesters" had stopped supporters from entering the rally, to the more likely one of the threat of Covid-19.
But the one that has caught the popular imagination is the theory that users of the social media platform TikTok, and "fans of Korean pop music groups", or K-pop, conspired to register hundreds of thousands of tickets for the campaign rally as a prank.
According to The New York Times, "after the Trump campaign’s official account @TeamTrump posted a tweet asking supporters to register for free tickets using their phones on June 11, K-pop fan accounts began sharing the information with followers, encouraging them to register for the rally — and then not show."
In the early days of explaining the power of social media platforms to people, presenters used to favour comparing their number of users with the population of countries. Currently, for example, if Facebook were a country, its 2.6-billion monthly active users would make it much bigger than China. TikTok has about 800-million monthly active users, which would make it almost 2½ times bigger than the US, and 5½ times bigger than Russia.
Many people greeted this TikTok prank with glee. In response to Parscale’s plaintive excuse that "radical protesters, fuelled by a week of apocalyptic media coverage, interfered with Donald Trump supporters at the rally", Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: "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. Shout out to Zoomers. Y’all make me so proud."
Somewhat paradoxically, Ocasio-Cortez has previously tweeted, in relation to Russian interference in US politics, that "letting our elections be subverted by hostile actors is disastrous".
As some commentators are pointing out, the TikTok "prank" is just that: foreign interference in an election (and though we’re foregrounding TikTok, other social media platforms such as Instagram also played a part).
And it wasn’t just about humiliating Trump with an empty arena.
One of the Trump campaign’s boastful tweets about the "record" number of registrations claimed: "Biggest data haul and rally sign-up of all time by 10x."
As one of the instigators of the false sign-ups, the suspiciously non-teen 51-year-old TikTok user Mary Jo Laupp, said: "We all know the Trump campaign feeds on data, they are constantly mining these rallies for data. Feeding them false data was a bonus. The data they think they have, the data they are collecting from this rally, isn’t accurate."
That’s where we are now in the war for meaning. The simple testimony of a nun, and the breaking of the fourth wall in a popular TV show (to choose two very random examples), have morphed into the despoliation of data by citizens of a virtual country, as part of learning to exist as both perpetrators and victims of crimes against truth.
Which all sounds very abstract, until you’re confronted with your own choice of when to support misinformation for ends you perceive as good — or deciding if, indeed, such a thing can exist.