How K-pop fans became celebrated online vigilantesAbby Ohlheiseron June 5, 2020 at 9:11 pm

Online culture loves a vigilante in times of crisis, and many saw parallels with Anonymous, the leaderless hacktivist collective that has, in the past, allied itself with protest movements and doxxed KKK members. K-pop fans are now even making fan videos about Anonymous itself.

This narrative has found traction partly because it plays against stereotypes: K-pop fandom is often dismissed as a monolithic swarm of annoying, shallow screaming tweens who manipulate Twitter’s trending algorithms in order to establish which group or performer is the most worthy. Suddenly being shown evidence that stans are more complex, thoughtful, or socially aware than the stereotype is a surprise only for those who weren’t paying attention.

Repurposed tactics

“There’s a narrative that seems to persist with the general public and the media about K-pop fans, that mostly white, teen girls comprise the fan community,” says Keidra Chaney, a culture writer and publisher of The Learned Fangirl, a website that analyzes and critiques pop culture. “It’s very diverse, not just around race and ethnicity but age as well. The stereotype of ‘giggling teen girls’ does a lot to obscure the diversity of these fan communities and the more complex dynamics of how they interact.”

K-pop’s earliest American fan base was in the Asian diaspora, but then it “spread through communities of young people of color who are interested in other aspects of East Asian popular culture,” says Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. She says fans often tell her that they found K-pop by seeking out non-Western pop culture as an alternative to an American mainstream “in which they feel they are not represented.”

Their ability to dominate online conversation is not an accident: learning how to get views on behalf of your favorite group is part of K-pop fandom. Fans learn tactics to help their groups explode in YouTube views and shoot up the charts whenever they release new material. Groups of stans stream new music videos and tracks on YouTube and Spotify for hours at a time, guided by fan-madetutorials. They make memes, like fancams–short, fan-produced videos focusing on a single performer–and share them widely. They’re so good at manipulating the metrics of social media that people who are new to watching K-pop in action can, on first glance, mistake the accounts for bots.

The genre’s fans have a tendency to prioritize harnessing their numbers for maximum visibility over using their social-media presence to make K-pop more accessible to outsiders, says Cho: “There’s a lot of retweeting, and making one’s influence known as part of an aggregate and not a single voice.”

This skill at redirecting online attention has translated into activism before. There is a long history of K-pop fans organizing around causes in the name of their favorite groups, and not just as a feel-good detour from streaming artists on Spotify: activism is part of participating in the fandom, where good deeds can become another metric. “K-pop fans often use their voices to uplift viral charity campaigns for global nonprofits, often done under the names of their favorite idols,” Chaney says.

In the past decade, this has included donating to create forests carrying the name of their favorite group or idol, creating donation drives, and elevating campaigns promoted by celebrities. “While altruism is definitely a motivation for these campaigns, it’s also an act of goodwill and positive publicity for fans’ favorite artists,” Chaney adds.

This all reached critical mass in the US with the emergence of protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Two days before K-pop stans took down the Dallas police app, fans of Blackpink, a South Korean girl group that regularly breaks streaming records, organized a campaign to stop a Twitter hashtag related to the group’s collaboration with Lady Gaga from trending, instead opting to amplify #blacklivesmatter.

Internal conflict

But some stans, and the academics who study them, say that while it’s great to see fans use these platforms for good, the rapid veneration is overshadowing the more complex dynamics underlying K-pop fandom. And, they say, the newfound reputation for anti-racist heroism largely ignores the voices of black K-pop fans, who have struggled with racism and harassment within the community.

“For a lot of black fans, including myself, to see white K-pop fans get praised and credited in the media for anti-racist activism, while black fans have faced (and will continue to face) anti-black harassment online for spearheading these conversations, feels like a punch in the gut–that we are being used for our social currency and then discarded,” Chaney says.

For example, as K-pop’s activism was attracting international news coverage, there was also a harassment campaign targeting fans who were calling out Suga, a member of BTS, an enormously popular K-pop group. They were concerned about a song on a new mixtape in which he sampled the voice of cult leader Jim Jones, whose victims were overwhelmingly black. A lot of black fans were expressing themselves on Twitter and, as a consequence, getting harassed and doxxed by other fans who didn’t want them to say negative things about their favorite artist, says Tamar Herman, a pop culture contributor for Billboard.

BTS itself also remained silent on Black Lives Matter, even as other groups were taking their fans’ lead and making public statements supporting the protests. Finally, on Thursday, the official BTS account tweeted about it.

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