The K-pop community on Twitter and other social media platforms seemed oddly silent in the last few weeks. Usually fervently chatting about their favourite pop idols in public, they were instead talking about Donald Trump. They had honed in on the fact that the US president, campaigning for re-election, would be hosting his first set piece event of the 2020 campaign in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they had a plan to spoil it.
Lovers of South Korean pop music, also known as K-pop, have claimed the scalp of the most powerful man in the world, taking partial credit for poor attendance at a presidential campaign rally held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the weekend. It was the worst-kept secret: despite seemingly every teenager knowing about the plan worldwide, the Trump campaign seemed oblivious to what was going on, boastfully claiming record numbers of attendees in advance of the event.
The K-pop fans are said to have organised a campaign that registered up to a million tickets for the rally using fake or irrelevant information, before not attending the rally, leaving Trump speaking to a largely empty stadium.
The embarrassment of Donald Trump on the campaign trail was partly a result of circumstances: even the most hardened Make America Great Again Republicans are wary of meeting in large places during the middle of a coronavirus outbreak killing hundreds of thousands. But it was also the result of a diligent campaign of subterfuge brokered online by a group of tech-literate fans of South Korean pop music, who have learned their craft of driving conversations online using almost militaristic precision to push favoured hashtags and controlling the narrative around their idols.
“K-pop fans have shown their ability to come together through social media for a common goal many times before,” says Holly Smith, a K-pop journalist formerly of the UnitedKpop website. “I think it’s great that they are now using their passion and commitment to make bigger statements about what they don’t support in the world.”
K-pop fans have long been known for their persistence in pursuing goals, and their strident dedication to a cause. Those who have faced the digital ire of K-pop followers know that they are nothing if not tenacious. (I should declare a personal interest: after writing about how they seemed to promote positive stories about a member of the biggest K-pop band, BTS, I was subjected to a week-long campaign of negative tweets and harassment on Twitter by some people claiming to be fans of the group, including death threats.)
And in recent weeks they’ve lent their organisational skills and campaigning nous to admirable goals. When Dallas Police launched an app designed to receive user-generated footage of Black Lives Matter protests called iWatch at the end of May, K-pop fans flooded the system with footage of their favourite bands performing to protect anyone who took part in the protests from being caught up in the digital dragnet.
“K-Pop fans also utilise social media really well and know how to galvanise themselves through it,” says Smith. “This helps them have a global reach and to achieve things very quickly.”
— Dallas Police Dept (@DallasPD) May 31, 2020
In the end, the police force took the app offline after it became impossible to filter out the relevant footage and tips from the videos of pop stars performing. The K-pop fans claimed victory. They also seemed to put their organisational power to good use by hijacking the #whitelivesmatter hashtag on Twitter, which was being used largely as a racist response to the Black Lives Matter protests, to include more wholesome content and drown out the hate-filled posts, and collectively, fans matched a $1 million donation to the Black Lives Matter movement made by BTS, the biggest K-pop band in the world. They’ve also taken rebuilding after the Australian bush fires and planting trees in South Sudan as pet campaigns in aid of promoting their idols’ favourite causes.
Fans of groups pushed pause on harnessing their immense digital presence to boost their favourite bands, and redirected their abilities to political goals – literally. Supporters of Blackpink, a K-pop group, stopped tweeting a hashtag designed to promote their band’s collaboration with Lady Gaga in favour of highlighting #blacklivesmatter.
The fandom’s digital literacy is a necessary result of circumstance, says Miranda Ruth Larsen, a K-pop scholar and fan at the University of Tokyo. “These skills are the same set found in any transcultural fandom where accessing source text, media, and goods requires coordinated effort,” she explains. “In K-pop’s case, during the past few years, the streaming culture fandoms have pushed themselves to the forefront, and for better and for worse, disseminated tools and tactics easily.”
Those tactics have just been repurposed from helping their idols with mass campaigns voting for them in online votes and lovebombing them with supportive messages to a more political bent – but that doesn’t mean the fandom was previously apolitical. Nor does it mean that their recent work should be viewed as an unabashedly good thing.
While most people would revel in the fact that a group of pop music fans played a hand in causing the president to mope off Marine One, his helicopter, as he returned to the White House this weekend, it’s too simplistic to say that this is a cut-and-shut case of absolute virtue. K-pop fans’ recent campaigns in favour of Black Lives Matter come as little succour to minority fans who feel K-pop has a dubious history when it comes to race, with stars accused of appropriating black culture in their music and shunning black K-pop fans from the cliques that dominate the online world.
“The current mainstream narrative about Anglophone K-pop fandoms has two major flaws,” says Larsen. “First, for assuming the fandoms are suddenly political, and second, to assume that these actions reflect fandoms that are safe spaces for BIPOC [black and indigenous people of colour].”
The same tactics that have been used to quell white supremacists wanting to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter, to artificially inflate forecast numbers of attendees at Trump’s Tulsa rally, and to prevent the Dallas police from identifying protesters – for good – have been used for bad in the past.
“These tactics are the same ones used against fans that rock the boat, especially BIPOC, who have called out issues of racism, cultural misappropriation, and so on since K-pop’s first pushes into the Anglosphere,” says Larsen. “The same organisation used to slam a hashtag can end a fan’s engagement with Twitter; the same circuits of sharing are used to doxx ‘unwanted’ fans.”
And Larsen is worried about the binary way in which K-pop fans are being presented as saviours of upstanding citizenry in the recent few weeks, when their history is far more complicated. “There are well-intentioned people behind this last bout of activism,” she says.
“There are fans that have learned to widen their perspectives. But there are also many fans using Black Lives Matter activism for clout now who were comfortable shutting down BIPOC calls to attention about antiblackness a few months ago.”
9) The story shouldn’t be “#Kpop fans currently care about social issues and are activists!” — it should be “Mostly white Kpop fans get to be the face of issues when they want to, and often ignore/harass/exclude fans of color from the conversation along with media coverage.”
— Miranda Larsen (@AcaOtaku) June 6, 2020
Part of the challenge is that pinning down K-pop fandom to a simple, single, homogenous group is complicated. When I received death threats after previously writing about K-pop fandom, some fans tried to convince me that those sending me messages were not part of the group they claimed to be part of – though many still persisted in setting others on me. And while the more militant fringes are just that – militant fringes – they utilise the same tactics as those who fight the good fight.
The weaponisation of social media against Trump is K-pop fans fighting fire with fire. Trump has used his platform on Twitter to bypass traditional media gatekeepers to launch personal attacks against those without a voice; he’s stoked violence, tweeting recently “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. K-pop fans are giving Trump what many consider a well-deserved taste of his own medicine. But it’s important to remember that the organisational tactics we’re now praising have their own problematic past.
“The moment we’re seeing now is just the spotlight landing on one subset of the fandom’s behaviour – they just tend to be very active, very visible, and fit into a veneration narrative,” says Larsen. “Most of us inside the fandoms, including BIPOC, know that the picture isn’t so rosy.”