Amid Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, K-pop fans are being hailed as a new force in politics and social justice.
In recent weeks, they flooded a Dallas police intelligence app trying to collect “illegal activity from the protests” with fancams – video clips of K-pop performers – until it crashed.
Armed with K-pop clips, they have spammed similar police surveillance requests on Twitter, a birthday card for President Trump, and taken over racist hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter and #itsokaytoberacist.
Teens on TikTok, including K-pop fans, also claimed to have reserved a significant number of tickets to Trump’s poorly attended Tulsa rally with no intention of going.
The power of fans
Fans of Korean pop music are not usually associated with online activism. But these online actions, amid the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, are forcing the public to pay attention and re-evaluate the power of fans.
“I think, basically, what we’re seeing is a mobilisation of young people,” said Michelle Cho, a researcher of Korean film and media.
Regardless of whether or not they identify as K-pop fans, she said these people are progressive and dissatisfied with the current mechanisms for political action.
“[They] are frustrated with a more moderate or establishment approaches to questions about systemic racism and anti-Blackness,” said Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian popular cultures at the University of Toronto in Canada.
And they are using platform manipulation activities to have a voice, Cho added.
I am proud to be associated w/@BTS_twt & the many #ARMY friends I have met. When I read of BTS contributions to causes such as #blacklivesmatter, support of concert workers & KPOP role in deflating the Tulsa rally I see light at the end of the tunnel. Thankyou pic.twitter.com/UJe3s0nNQK
— Marc Dominus (@Marcdominus1) June 23, 2020
The spontaneous participation of K-pop fans in these actions blurs a trolling or pranking activity with a political gesture, she said.
“I think it’s broader than K-pop, but K-pop fans have become this kind of chimaera or idea that the public now has of this mysterious force that can be activated and mobilised and almost summoned to help achieve some goal,” Cho explained.
A diverse fanbase
Diasporic Asians were the first K-pop fans in the West. They shared their love of the genre with their friends, many of them young women and people of colour. Today, the fanbase is diverse. Many fans are teenagers or in their early 20s, but there are also some who are much older.
“In 2020, it’s (K-pop in North America) sort of crossed over into more of a mainstream pop culture for a certain demographic,” Cho said, citing the recent YouTube Originals commencement ceremony Dear Class of 2020, whose line-up included the Obamas, Beyonce, and boy group BTS, the most popular K-pop act.
Understanding this online activism, said fans and academics, requires seeing young people beyond just being fans.
“We often talk about fandoms as collectives, but it is really important to realise that these spaces are made up of individuals,” said Dr Candace Epps-Robertson, a fan and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina who researches BTS, its fans, and social justice.
“People enter into these fandom communities with lots of ideas and commitments; some may be political, or tied to social issues.”
Morgan Hayes, 24, and Catrina Kokkoris, 23, are K-pop “stans”, meaning super fans, and the duo behind the New York City-based podcast Kpop Critical. For them, K-pop is a hobby – it is fun to follow, and there is plenty to critique.
For both, the current conversation about stans’ activism is “very one note”.
“There are also a lot of K-pop stans who will go out of their way to doxx (publicising the personal information of) young Black women online for their opinions on K-pop,” said Catrina.
Among fans, young Black women are sometimes attacked for voicing their concerns about cultural appropriation, among other things.
“These people aren’t monoliths,” said Catrina.
“There’re all of these narratives of Instagrammers, TikTokers, K-pop stans fighting the good fight, doing this or that. And to me, it’s more like people who have interests and skillsets and hobbies coming together and using those hobbies to fight for something that they believed in anyways,” she added.
Morgan spread the word on social media about disrupting the Dallas police app after she saw a post: “Someone was like, ‘Wow, that would really suck if somebody sent fancams.'” She thought it was hilarious and shared the tactic.
Devoted fans are known for randomly, and annoyingly, overwhelming Twitter threads with videos, images and memes of their favourite band.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Perfect, [they] found the perfect place to drop all of their videos for good use,'” said Catrina.
They both believe it is mostly teenagers who disrupted the app because they often have this content on their phones. “The kids are geared up to just like post whatever, at any moment,” Morgan said, adding that these actions are about “teens being super quick.”
One Reddit user, and K-pop fan who identified as a 15-year-old boy from the UK, said he sent about 100 pictures and fancams to the Dallas police portal, then “me and others continued our antics” by flooding racist hashtags with K-pop.
In general, K-pop fans are used to mobilising to promote their favourite groups on different platforms to help get them to the top of the music charts. “Those tactics, I think, are really immediately applicable to political uses,” Cho said.
I don't think we've ever seen a fandom this large before and they span all over the globe.
BTS fans, or ARMY (an acronym for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), as they are known, are particularly organised, strategic and collaborative.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a fandom this large before and they span all over the globe,” said Nicole Santero, a sociology PhD student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who researches ARMY culture, and shares data insights on the @ResearchBTS account.
While there are no clear numbers about the global ARMY, given that BTS has nearly 27 million followers on Twitter, with many of them active, she said the fandom is easily in the millions. The fans are diverse; a lot are young people, but there are individuals of all ages right up to their 60s, she said.
K-pop fans easily create worldwide trends or take over conversations.
With their numbers and structure, this is especially true of ARMY. “It doesn’t take much for them to trend things,” Santero explains. In May, for example, there were only two days when a hashtag or term related to BTS was not trending worldwide.
They do not often take over hashtags for social justice or political reasons, according to Santero. It usually happens for a philanthropic initiative.
While K-pop is largely a non-political arena in South Korea, stars and their fans contribute to charitable causes. There is a tradition of fans organising to contribute rice, money or other donations to their star’s charities of choice. This public service has spilled over into international fandoms.
ARMY is changing the way we see social media and philanthropic activities, Santero believes.
The fans will often assist campaigns by raising awareness. “A lot of the times, ARMY will take those hashtags and spread it around with bigger accounts,” she said. For instance, they have mobilised to find a rare blood type donor for one fan’s grandfather. Because they are visible and active, especially on Twitter, she said, people will call on them for help.
If you can help, please search #/혈액형 in weverse. And it’s open for everyone bc rh-A blood is very rare https://t.co/b5qO32I3QD
— bora⁷ (@modooborahae) January 16, 2020
BTS’s messages about inclusivity, positivity, and self-empowerment, and voicing young people’s struggles, resonate with fans, as do undertakings such as Love Myself, a fundraising campaign with UNICEF to stop violence against children. Fans see the group as standing apart in K-pop, as underdogs who forged their own path in a manufactured industry.
Charitable fundraising for social issues has become a defining part of ARMY culture.
“It’s like idol, like fandom, right? They have positive role models, and so they want to also be just like them,” Santero said.
Fans, passionate about their bands, have the in-built characteristics of activists, and this translates into supporting social issues and taking collective action, said Santero.
In early June, BTS donated one million dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement, and made a statement against racial discrimination. Then, within about 24 hours, fans matched that donation.
We're more powerful working together.
The One in an ARMY fan collective, which since 2018 has been running monthly charity campaigns for non-profits around the world, centralised and tracked those donations to a select list of movement organisations.
“No one really said, Let’s do it in 24 hours,” said Erika Overton, 40, a One in an Army spokesperson who lives near Atlanta, in the US, and a fan since 2017. But matching the contribution became a self-imposed challenge.
The name, she said, comes from the idea that in such a massive fandom, even if everyone gives a micro-donation, the effect is huge. “We’re more powerful working together,” she said.
The culture of charity is “a pay-it-forward sort of thing” for receiving so much through BTS’s music and the fan community, according to Erika.
Within the global community, people educate each other about different issues, provide tutoring, professional advice and mental health support.
Gigi, a Sudanese-Canadian doctor in her mid-30s, became a devoted ARMY in 2016.
“Basically, what I see as a central ARMY experience is the educational and transformational value of exposure to so many global perspectives on things,” she explains. “I learned a lot, and my empathy and understanding of others has increased.”
— Isis Miller (@gahdess_isis) June 22, 2020
One in an ARMY has 28 volunteers from the US, Malaysia, Morocco and other countries, but not South Korea. It started with a project to help medics in Syria.
They poll their followers to see what they want to support, and based on that will design and promote campaigns, directing fans – they do not collect donations – often to small charities that they have vetted, and for tangible impact. Hundreds of thousands of people donate to the campaigns, Erika said.
They have provided families in Tanzania with clean drinking water for 25 years. In April, they ran a COVID-19 campaign to support nine charities they have helped in the past, including one working with refugee dance teachers in Rwanda – now facing a loss of income due to the pandemic. They also organised for emergencies, such as the bushfires in Australia earlier this year or for Indian migrant workers affected by coronavirus, often through “crisis carrds” listing ways to help.
Within the wider world of K-pop, fans in North America have stood for other causes. They have lobbied the industry and the “Big 3” entertainment companies for better work conditions for performers, more openness on LGBTQ issues and awareness of cultural appropriation, and to speak in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In South Korea, the movement has largely been seen as an American issue, and people are wary about idols getting involved in politics, according to Cho. Performers have to carefully balance how they acknowledge their domestic and American fans, she said.
Morgan would like to see a more considered approach by idols with big platforms when it comes to social justice issues. She referred to a #blackouttuesday Instagram post by a member of NCT127 which had no links or information about how people can support the movement.
A new band, 2Z, Morgan and Catrina point out, were praised for being one of the first acts to respond to the murder of George Floyd with a picture of them taking a knee. That was quickly seen as something exploitative and as opportunistic self-promotion, however, when one member sampled Floyd’s dying words.
When asked about BTS’s one-million-dollar donation, she said it needs to be something sustained for non-profits to survive and music companies need to be consistent if they care.
“That million dollars is just a deposit, especially if your music relies heavily on Black people, and the cultural contributions that we’ve given,” said Morgan.
“I guess more in a true revolutionary spirit, there has to be work that’s done every day, no matter how small or large it is,” said Catrina.
KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too 😌
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 21, 2020
Cho thinks the affirmative feedback K-pop fans are getting will see them get involved in more actions. “I don’t think this is a one-off. I think that it’ll probably continue,” she said, pointing out that this is happening amid a growing consciousness and continuing conversations about systemic racism.
“I think people are reassessing how they use the internet and social media and how this could be a space where people actually make change,” said Morgan.
The outrage caused by George Floyd’s death, and as people sit with themselves at home because of coronavirus measures, have made them reflective, she said.
Just as society is picking sides, K-pop fans are, too, said Catrina.
“Younger progressive K-pop fans learning more and more every day – and just growing up in America and realising the long history of police brutality against Black people, the long history of slavery, lynching and violence – are starting to learn how to use their voice in this.”