The US’s K-pop, BTS fans: A growing force for social justice?

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.

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.”

‘One note’

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.

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