Fans of K-pop have stepped into the spotlight as a political force, after claiming credit for derailing expectations of massive crowds for US President Donald Trump’s latest campaign rally and throwing their support behind the Black Lives Matter movement.
Thousands of K-pop fans and other social media users encouraged their followers on Twitter and TikTok to register for tickets for Trump’s Saturday appearance in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then not show up – a prank that appears to have fuelled wildly inflated predictions of a huge turnout.
After Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale last week announced the event had received more than 1 million requests for tickets, the president ended up speaking at a 19,000-seat venue that was more than two thirds empty.
His campaign blamed the poor turnout on “radical protesters” – though few were reported at the scene – and the media scaring supporters away. Among the Democrats greeting the images of empty seats with glee was New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who thanked Generation Z “zoomers” and K-pop allies for their “contributions in the fight for justice”.
In South Korea, K-pop idols are known for their saccharine image rather than their stance on politics, but the emergence of socially aware bands such as BTS is transforming perceptions of the industry.
And while K-pop fans are known as the rallying force behind sold-out concerts and No 1 songs, the world has only recently taken notice of their political clout.
“From what I’ve seen these past few years, our fandom is extremely politically engaged,” said Adaeze Agbakoba, a 21-year old African-American BTS fan in Washington. “This is due to the fact that our fandom has the most diverse demographic in all of K-pop.
“Our numbers are in the tens of millions, and many polls and analyses have shown that the majority [of those in the BTS Army, as the group’s fans are known] are actually between the ages of 18 and 30.
“So most of us are at the very least university students and at the most working citizens who are old enough to vote, and are most likely educated on political topics and keeping up with the daily news.”
But why target Trump? Michael Hurt, a Korean-American visual sociologist and lecturer at Korea National University of Arts in Seoul, said K-pop fans tended to be more liberal and supportive of civil rights movements.
“[They have an] allergy to the boomer modes of political attack, avoidance of responsibility, and [old-fashioned] attitudes that Trump represents,” he said. “K-pop fandom, which is international, young, and digitally activated, has a lot of demographic overlap with the kind of people who are going to be most averse to Trump’s [discriminatory] messages.”
More importantly, Hurt added, these digital natives know how to do a “digital hit job” better than anyone else in the world. “No one else is able to do a complete digital assassination of Trump’s interests online than BTS’ fandom. So this makes a lot of sense.”
Earlier this month, BTS and its record label Big Hit Entertainment donated US$1 million to Black Lives Matter, after announcing they “stand together” against racial discrimination.
Within days, fans of the group – which addressed the United Nations in 2018 with a speech encouraging young people to stand up for their convictions – more than matched that sum with donations to Black Lives Matter and other advocacy groups.
“I think BTS’ 2018 speech at the UN really comforted us,” said Sterre Brouwer, a 15-year old BTS fan based in the Netherlands. “I watch their speeches whenever I feel bad about myself and I feel like it inspires us to do more.”
At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in early June, K-pop fans claimed responsibility for crashing an app used by the Dallas Police Department through which the public could submit videos of suspicious behaviour, by flooding it with video clips of their favourite idols.
In May, they piled on the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag, hoping to drown out right-wing and racist messaging about the anti-police brutality protests.
Before they became known for overt political activism, K-pop fans had already mastered social media as a tool for connecting with peers and promoting their idols – including defending them from criticism and ridicule. Last year, Australian broadcaster Channel Nine was forced to issue an apology after a segment poking fun at BTS and its fan base provoked the ire of fans and saw the hashtag #Channel9Apologise go viral.
“Most of us know what it feels to be discriminated against, so I think seeing that [happen] to our favourite artists makes us even more passionate to fight for equality and support the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Brouwer, the Dutch fan, pointing to the large number of people of colour and LGBT+ people within K-pop fandom.
CedarBough T. Saeji, visiting assistant professor in the department of East Asian languages and cultures at Indiana University, said K-pop fans had developed a sophisticated grasp of social media through years of “campaigns to increase views on a video, request songs be played on the radio, or promote a new release”.
“All of those methods of organising are handled with a remarkable understanding of how online systems work – for example, how to increase Spotify or YouTube plays without being flagged by the platform as junk plays is discussed and analysed,” Saeji said.
Amid long-standing criticism that the K-pop industry has appropriated and profited off African-American culture, the rise of Black Lives Matter has also seen a growing number of Korean artists acknowledge their influences and aspire to allyship.
Rappers pH-1 and Jay Park have donated to Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd Memorial Fund, while CL – who also donated to the causes – recently posted a lengthy note on Instagram on the importance of supporting Black Lives Matter.
“Artists, directors, writers, dancers, designers, producers, stylists in the K-pop industry are all inspired by black culture whether they acknowledge it or not,” wrote the K-pop rapper. “We must stand up and help them fight for justice.”
For fans like Agbakoba, that sense of solidarity and appreciation of diversity is key to K-pop’s appeal.
“I do think the diversity helps with things like this a lot,” she said. “Because in the [BTS] Army fandom, for example, you’ve got people with political knowledge and people with knowledge on social media. Mix the two together, and you get what we’ve been witnessing since these protests have started. A threat [to the system].”
The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.