K-pop fans vs Duterte’s Philippines: Why young voters want change

Just as Filipino K-pop fans mobilise to vote in contests for their favourite artists, they have organised for typhoon relief efforts and can mobilise for voter education [File: AFP/Ted Aljibe]

Filipino K-pop fans are more politically discerning than you might think.

Our capacity to mobilise, strategise and mount campaigns are crucial for sparking voter education and triggering discussions to help young people realise how much power they hold in influencing not just the outcome of the 2022 presidential election, but also the future of the Philippines.

Just as K-pop stans (super fans) like myself mobilise to vote for our favourite idols – be they solo artists or members of a group – to win music contests, we can also marshal other stans to register and vote.

As one 22-year-old Filipino graphic artist and K-pop fan tweeted in early September: “If you can vote for your idols, you should also vote for your country too.”

She had participated in an online voter education session which I co-organised to discuss with young people why they should vote and convince others to vote in the May 2022 election.

Mayora, my co-organiser, and I call these sessions #Eleksyonisms, a term which combines the Filipino word for elections (eleksyon) and the suffix -isms, used by Filipino millennials as a playful way to describe a state of mind, circumstance or situation.

We believe that it makes sense to enlist fans in voter education. Today, more than half of registered voters are young and K-pop stans tend to be young.

The online presence of Filipino stans is significant – the Philippines ranked fifth for unique users discussing K-pop on Twitter in 2020 and fourth when it came to tweet volume, after Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and the United States, where K-pop stans claimed to have hijacked a Donald Trump campaign rally in 2020 to engineer a low turnout.

If stans in the US were able to do that, then in the Philippines, fury and discontent with the poor response of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government to the coronavirus pandemic and the brutal crackdown against his critics in different sectors should push K-pop fans and young people to vote.

It was in November last year when I first saw the potential of K-pop fandoms to generate real change on the ground.

At that time, Typhoon Vamco had wreaked havoc in the Philippines. As a journalist who reports on natural and man-made disasters as well as climate change, I was glued to Twitter for updates – I monitored the number of casualties, the extent of the damage, announcements by government officials.

But then something unusual on my timeline caught my eye.

It was a callout by Reveluvs, fans of the K-pop girl group Red Velvet, for donations. It wasn’t only Reveluvs who were doing this – other K-pop fan communities such as ARMY, fans of the most famous K-pop group BTS, and Blinks, Blackpink stans, were also doing their own donation drives.

More recently, in April, K-pop fandoms organised community pantries to help people who lost their sources of income during the pandemic.

They did this even as they risked being red-tagged – suspected by the authorities as well as Duterte’s supporters of being members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

These displays of civic mobilisation made me see K-pop fandoms in a different light – as communities aware of society’s problems and doing something about them. K-pop fans in different parts of the world have conducted similar activities, but for Filipino stans, there is a common, general sentiment that in the absence of government support, they must step in instead.

Seeing how they were able to translate online callouts to assistance on the ground, with money and donations collected and delivered, made me realise the capacity of fandoms to move in a very strategic manner for causes they believe in. It showed their potential to catalyse voter education for the 2022 elections.

When Twitter Spaces for live conversations started and became a hit this May among K-pop fans, I floated the idea to other stan accounts. That is how I met Mayora, a pseudonym, which means female mayor in Filipino.

She got the name among stans because she conducted online activities for Sones, fans of the group Girls’ Generation.

But Mayora, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, is also an angry Filipina. She is on a mission – she wants a government that will uphold the rule of law.

Unlike other stans I’ve interacted with in our voter discussions, close friends of hers were killed during Oplan Tokhang, Duterte’s state-funded “war on drugs” that led to the killing of more than 6,000 people, according to the numbers provided by the government, although human rights groups say the deaths could be closer to 30,000. This crackdown is now the subject of an investigation authorised by the International Criminal Court into alleged crimes against humanity.

I, on the other hand, have experienced how journalists have been dismissed as enemies of the state. Reports, including mine, that were critical of the current government have been labelled by online netizens as “fake news,” a term that authoritarians have bandied around, contributing to an environment of distrust towards mainstream media.

My search for other ways to inform the Filipino audience – especially young people – about political issues, and Mayora’s anger at the Tokhang operations, led us to start #Eleksyonisms.

On September 12, Mayora and I held the first #Eleksyonisms. The discussion, which lasted for more than two hours, centred on the importance of registering as a voter and concerns about the election itself – how can it be conducted when COVID-19 cases continue to be high in the Philippines and social distancing should be observed? There are also fears that cheating could take place. Some also asked what qualities they should look for in candidates.

One listener told us they needed discussions like this especially because of the shrinking sources of information on mainstream media following the decision of Congress in July 2020 not to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN and force the closure of the country’s biggest broadcast network.

Different K-pop fan Twitter accounts have also started their own voter education campaigns.

ARMY BAYANIHAN⁷, for example, which has more than 6,000 followers, first posted a campaign earlier this year on voter registration in partnership with iUplift Philippines, a student-led humanitarian response initiative. Project 0613PH, which helps ARMYs understand or navigate the mobile voter registration app, started in June.

Both accounts share details about voter registration and help fellow ARMYs who need guidance about the process. They plan to conduct online discussions.

Neither will endorse any particular candidate or political group. The same goes for Mayora and me.

The filing of candidacies ran until October 8, and Duterte, who retracted an earlier statement that he will run for vice president, is now retiring from politics. His longtime personal assistant, Christopher “Bong” Go, filed his candidacy for the same post instead.

Mayora and I want to help voters know more about the weight of their vote. We will help them understand how the government works – the president’s powers, the lawmaking processes, and the priorities for fund allocation in relation to the pandemic response.

While we do not plan to hijack campaign rallies, spurring Filipino K-pop stans to go out and vote is our way of disrupting the status quo and empowering voters. Our anger counts – and we can turn our anger into action.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.