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How K-Pop Fans Actually Work as a Force for Political Activism in 2020

12 minute read

Millions of dollars in donations. Viral hashtag domination. Ticket interference at Trump rallies. These might sound like the actions of a highly-coordinated political or philanthropic campaign. In reality, it’s the work of a broad coalition of K-pop fans. Over the past few months, the power of K-pop fans to make their values known has become a hot topic of media conversation.

But for those who have been paying close attention, the impact of K-pop’s fans on our present political discourse should not come as a surprise. Accustomed to mobilizing quickly online, and often holding progressive values, fans of K-pop groups like BTS, Stray Kids, Monsta X and Loona are uniquely prepared to organize and succeed in their choices of online activism. They have been known to deploy their influence over the years in the service of causes ranging from human rights campaigns to education programs, often in the names of the idols they support.

The millions of supporters of different groups, both within the U.S. and beyond, are hardly a demographic or political monolith, however.

“K-pop fans aren’t just K-pop fans. It’s not a binary; that’s dehumanizing,” says Tamar Herman, a pop correspondent for Billboard and author of the upcoming book BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears. “It’s not just K-pop fans who are doing this. It’s Black people who are K-pop fans who are doing this, it’s allies who want to support Black Lives Matter who are K-pop fans who are doing this.”

K-pop fandoms have made headlines for internal challenges of their own to overcome too, including instances of anti-Blackness and widely-discussed cultural appropriation by idols, which have recently become increasingly central parts of K-pop community conversations.

Yet this specific, varied coalition, under the K-pop label and using fandom tactics, has caught the attention of everyone from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to President Donald Trump for their savvy organizing. Here’s how they’ve made waves, using a mix of organic chatter and coordinated efforts that has resulted in notable impact.

K-pop politics

“I really don’t believe that being a K-pop fan is something that inherently makes you a social activist,” says Sahia S., Twitter user @s4hia, a K-pop fan who primarily supports the 12-member girl group Loona. Still, it’s a community that perhaps is more receptive to engaging with political discussion and more prepared to be vocal about support.

“The K-pop fandom culture has developed into a mostly respectful environment where fans can educate and communicate with each other,” says Krista Feind, Twitter user @neokr1sta27, who actively shares K-pop content online. “A lot of K-pop fans are from minority groups—Black, Latino, LGBTQ—and social media is a place for them to connect with other people who have had similar experiences. I believe that the sense of community in the K-pop fandom encourages us to stand up for each other’s rights, such as for BLM [Black Lives Matter].”

But they caution that fandoms do not move as a unit, and activism is more a reflection of the population’s varied demographics and general size than a binding view that unites all fans, who span far and wide globally, well beyond Korea. At the same time, the qualities that draw many K-pop fans to the genre also tend to align with more progressive causes. That self-love and social consciousness are topics often repeated in K-pop lyrics only reinforces this alignment.

“It’s not that K-pop fans are proven to be more liberal, necessarily,” Herman says, “But if you’re a K-pop fan who’s not Korean, it’s innately a sociopolitical thing for you to be engaging with K-pop and Korean entertainment, because it’s something that’s not fed to you by your country’s media.” A non-Korean K-pop fan must also have an innate willingness to work to understand another language, to learn about another culture and to support a genre that is often trivialized. Those qualities can translate to an interest in supporting Black Lives Matter and opposing Trump, especially as the 2020 election looms and these topics become top of mind to potential new U.S. voters. Still, “why are you so surprised that humans are acting like other humans?” Herman asks. They just happen to have the social media savvy to turn their opinions into viral topics.

Social media domination

While K-pop fans congregate and are significant contributors on pretty much every social media platform, including Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Discord and Twitch, Twitter is one of the most visible—and therefore most popular—places for fans to find solidarity and make their opinions seen and heard. Fans are used to making select hashtags trend globally rapidly, whether it’s to celebrate an idol’s birthday or give an album release a boost. BTS fans, for instance, have set many records for the total number of Tweets they send and subjects they get trending. The other major action K-pop fans take on Twitter is sharing “fancams,” video and photo compilations of a certain idol or group.

So it made sense that K-pop supporters who are in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement would make that known, too. At the end of May, K-pop supporters flooded a police scanner app for Dallas, TX with fancams after the police department asked citizens to submit videos of protest activity. Effectively, this shut down the app’s ability, rendering it useless for the Dallas police’s intended purpose of identifying protesters. (In a tweet, they cited “technical difficulties.”)

This block of the police was a grassroots, collective effort that grew organically, and went on to include “spamming” hashtags with further fancams, memes and videos, including the #WhiteLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter tags that directly combated the ethos of Black Lives Matter. The movement swelled quickly. “It didn’t seem to me like a fanbase thing. It was just one person who had this idea, maybe a few,” Herman says. That was all it took. “K-pop fans are really good at mobilizing to get what they want, whether it’s streaming or album sales or ticket sales. And you can use that power for other things.”

“Most of what I’ve done is spamming racist, inaccurate, ignorant hashtags with K-pop photos or videos so that people can’t spread hate or false info via trending tags,” Feind says. None of this was directly encouraged or spoken about by the K-pop idols themselves.

And not all fans were in favor of this kind of activism; Sahia chose to abstain from the hashtag spam because she says she felt it turned the hashtags into trending topics that shifted attention away from the “real issue,” she says. “Honestly? I found the fancam situation counterproductive. I mean, there were good intentions, but I feel like that same energy could’ve been put into raising more awareness for the actual Black Lives Matter movement.” She says she did, however, support jamming the police scanner app.

Collectively, these efforts made their own type of statements, and served as a lesson in the potential of redirecting social media.

The charity angle

Fandom is inherently a competition: a group’s supporters want their favored idols to have the most streams, the most tickets sold, the most video views. That competition ends up bleeding into other fandom actions, too, including charitable giving. The gamification of the process is a win-win: groups’ names become associated with philanthropic efforts, organizations receive monetary support and good press, and fandoms channel their love of a musician into something meaningful.

In June, the BTS ARMY reportedly collectively raised over $1 million for Black Lives Matter, matching BTS’s own $1 million donation, which Big Hit Entertainment confirmed to Variety. This particular effort was organized by One in an ARMY, a fan group that regularly coordinates charitable efforts by the mighty ARMY; they confirmed their fundraising to the New York Times.

“Donations exist in K-pop fandoms for a reason. K-pop fans will try to outdo each other,” Herman says: they will even call up charities to see which other fandoms have donated, and try to one-up the latest efforts in the name of their favorites. “It’s comical, because it’s so good and so charitable. I wouldn’t say that the competitive element makes things happen, but it enhances the way things happen.” Herman notes that it doesn’t diminish the power or authenticity of the donations: money to a good cause is money to a good cause. But the side effects are effective publicity.

Tickets in demand

And then there was the Trump rally. Trump spokespeople claimed as many as 1 million ticket requests were received for the June Tulsa, Okla. rally for the president. But ultimately the in-person attendance was just a little over 6,000. Thanks to Trump’s well-known focus on crowd sizes, this specific fact became a subject of satire from high-profile comedians like Stephen Colbert.

Headlines reported that “K-pop fans and TikTok teens” were responsible for the prank, which some individual fans that TIME spoke with, like Feind, corroborated. “I’ve also participated in a few TikTok-related events, like signing up for tickets for political rallies,” she says, including the Tulsa event that made headlines and another Trump rally that was supposed to happen in New Hampshire. It’s difficult to trace the movement, however: posts in advance of the Tulsa rally, circulated mainly on TikTok, were strategically deleted to ensure the guerrilla nature of the campaign, and concerns about COVID-19 may have further reduced ticket holder desire to show up. One woman, affectionately dubbed “TikTok grandma” by fans, also urged a similar message and found viral fame. But either way, many commentators were quick to pin it on fandoms and social media.

Read More: The Mastermind Behind BTS Opens Up About Making a K-Pop Juggernaut

Feind says she discovered the plan mostly via the app’s “For You” feature, which surfaces videos that users may be interested in. Publicly, some K-pop supporters began to take credit for the results. After the ticket trolling, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale suggested there were “radical protestors” involved, although on-the-ground media reported mostly peaceful protests.

“Kpop allies, we see an appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response.

Ticketing was an appropriate match for the skillset of K-pop supporters. Concerts can sell out within minutes, so fans have a number of tactics to make sure they snag the tickets they want, like setting up extra email accounts to maximize their chances. “Fans who are used to getting tickets know exactly how to get a ticket,” Herman says. It was the “most natural, inadvertent organizing” that could happen, popularized by pre-existing casual networks of communication that weren’t tied to any official channels or big fan accounts. The Loona fan, Sahia, sees it as a “humorous hive mind mentality that you can find at times,” coupled with fans “using that dedication and energy and persistence they have for their artists into making a statement.”

Now, according to Feind, some fans are continuing with their interference with the Trump team by filling up online shopping baskets at Trump’s website with merchandise they’ll never purchase.

But it’s not necessarily a partisan effort, Herman says. It’s hard to predict if this means there will be mass activation in favor of any specific other candidate. “I don’t think K-pop fans were thinking they were ‘allies’ by messing with Trump. They were just like, Trump is Trump.” Herman and the Twitter fans caution against over-romanticizing what the K-pop support may look like when it comes down to voting, however.

The silence of the idols

Historically, K-pop idols don’t weigh in on politics, national or international. “Americans are in pretty much the most politicized country in the world. Our elections take forever, and it’s not a surprise when entertainers come out in support of a politician. In Asia, that’s not something you do,” Herman says. With audiences in nearly every country, the most commercially effective position for an idol is neutrality. In 2015, for example, when a member of girl group Twice allegedly held a Taiwanese flag during a broadcast, her production company ended up dealing with a wave of backlash, after which public apologies were made.

However, recent events have galvanized a number of groups to make supportive public statements, including BTS, Monsta X and members of NCT and artists like Jamie Park and Big Bang’s Taeyang. But even longtime fans recognize that is a rarity—and not something they’ve come to expect. And they are well aware that fan activities don’t necessarily reflect, or need to reflect, idol positions.

“The actions of K-pop fans don’t speak for their artists. For example, you can’t assume that an idol would condone the actions of their fans; some fans just go too far,” Feind says.

The tide seems to be shifting in favor of increased engagement with the politics of their fandoms. Groups have lately worked more quickly to release apologies or retractions when controversies have come to their attention.

But at the end of the day, it is the fans who are carrying the political mantle.


Correction, July 25

The original version of this story misstated the status of artist Taeyang. He is a current member of Big Bang, not a former member.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com