How K-Pop Fans Became the Ultimate Global Community of Activists

Erica Russell

As mass protests erupted in streets all over the world last week following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin, another social justice group led the fight online: K-pop stans. Using a number of tactics, from trolling to hijacking hashtags, this group of digital vigilantes helped propel the Black Lives Matter movement across digital spaces both niche and mainstream.

When police departments across the country asked their Twitter followers to snitch on their neighbors by submitting information related to alleged crimes committed during the protests, K-pop fans spammed the systems in an effort to protect protestors' identities. In one instance, fans flooded the official Dallas Police Department with fancam videos of their favorite K-pop idols dancing, making it nearly impossible to parse out legitimate submissions. (Fancams are short video clips of an artist or group, usually dancing or performing, that fans share in response to unrelated social media posts as a means to promote their favorites.) They also jammed the iWatch Dallas App tipline and submitted comically low app ratings, prompting the DPD to temporarily remove the app citing “technical difficulties.”

Meanwhile, K-pop fan accounts with large followings, like BLACKPINK fan account @BPinAmerica, used their clout to promote the #BlackLivesMatter movement and urge their followers to sign petitions seeking justice for Breonna Taylor and other victims of police brutality, as well as spread awareness of protestors’ rights. On Twitter and Instagram, fans also took over right-wing hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter and #MAGA, hijacking hateful communication channels to instead redistribute helpful, pro-Black Lives Matter resources and disrupt racist rhetoric with memes and, of course, more fancams.

But this is hardly the first time K-pop fans — who often leverage their creativity, passion, digital savvy, and penchant for virtual mobilization to support and amplify their favorite K-pop artists — have used their spread and influence for good.

Thanks to derogatory stereotypes, such as the idea that K-pop fans are Korea-fetishizing “Koreaboos” or “screaming teenage girls" — a doubly problematic, sexist stereotype that devalues teen girls’ interests and power as culture shapers — fandoms have developed a strong sense of social connectivity, as well as organizational skills. Their ostracization from the larger American pop narrative, and their subsequent support for non-white artists who are similarly marginalized in the Western entertainment industry, have made K-pop stans wizzes at taking fierce and swift collective action when duty calls.

“So much of fandom is experienced online, and that's especially true for K-pop fans who are part of such a massive and diverse global community,” explains culture writer Crystal Bell. While fans engaging with their favorite artists on social media and through fan clubs isn’t a new concept, Bell says that K-pop fans take it to the “next level in part because they play such an essential role in the advancement of their favorite artists' careers,” acting almost like a massive, well-oiled PR machine. “K-pop has always been a fan-led movement, and social media makes it a lot easier to see just how organized and savvy these fans can be, from trending names and hashtags worldwide, to organizing global streaming parties and translating Korean content into a multitude of languages." She adds, "This kind of fervent online activity and devotion also extends to charity efforts.”

Over the years, K-pop fans have displayed their ability to organize and effect change across a variety of social and humanitarian causes, from philanthropy to political activism. In August 2018, ARMYs (fans of superstar Korean music group BTS) and other K-pop fans rallied online in support of youth protests to promote better road safety standards in Bangladesh following a deadly collision. In December 2019, the Chilean government listed K-pop and its highly engaged global fanbase as one of the leading “international influences” on domestic political protests against class disparity and human rights violations. In February 2020, Korean ARMYs pooled together and donated refunds from BTS’ canceled Seoul concerts to raise support for COVID-19 relief. In June 2020, in under 24 hours BTS fans launched and surpassed a fundraiser to #MatchAMillion following the group’s $1 million donation toward Black Lives Matter.

“It's not uncommon for K-pop fandoms to organize and raise awareness around specific social issues and good causes,” Bell continues. “There's a long history of K-pop fans coming together to do good: In South Korea, fans often donate rice wreaths to local charities under the name of their favorite idols for big events like birthdays and concerts. In 2012, 2NE1 fans created a ‘2NE1 Forest’ in South Sudan by donating over 1,210 mango trees to a local village. Charity and doing good in the name of your idols and your fandom has always been a key part of K-pop fandom. It's about giving back to your community and also giving back to your idols — they do so much good for you, so of course it inspires you to do good for them. Fans want to make their favorite artists proud.”

As of 2018, there were nearly 90 million fans of Korean culture (or Hallyu, the “Korean Wave”) around the world, according to data from international polls conducted by The Korean Foundation, which is closely affiliated with the Korean Foreign Ministry. North and South America are home to an estimated 12 million fans, the second highest number of K-pop fans following Asia and Oceania’s estimated 70.6 million. The majority of K-pop stans are women, and they’re a highly globalized and diverse community, with many LGBTQ+, Black, and POC people making up the majority of its largely millennial base. As Bell adds, “it important to remember how being part of a global community expands your worldview,” something which ultimately “leads to an acute awareness of what’s going on in the world.”

K-pop fans are much more socially aware than they get credit for,” she says. “Last year, the Chilean government singled out K-pop fans for speaking out against the carabineros [the Chilean police force] and blocking social networks, which isn’t unlike how fans recently flooded the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag with fancams and Black Lives Matter resources. We've seen how swiftly K-pop fans work together to clear the searches on Twitter and spread awareness about their [favorite band member]. In many ways, they're implementing these same tactics to bring awareness to important social issues and human rights violations.”

The Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd protests are just the latest in a number of important social causes that have inspired K-pop fans to take urgent action. For many fans who know what it feels like to be marginalized, however, this cause hits close to home.

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“I grew up in a very small East Texas town where racism is just kind of ‘normal,’” says Dallas, a.k.a. @savemeslaps on Twitter, a K-pop fan who participated in the disruption of racist hashtags and police surveillance last week. “I dealt with small prejudices being a lesbian, and when I got older I educated myself on Black issues … As a white woman, I want to use my privilege to speak up. Black people have suffered injustices for hundreds of years and the least I can do is protect them and try to teach other white people why this is all happening and why Black lives matter. I think we realized a long time ago that we can make our voices heard and I’m very happy [K-pop fandoms are] being used for something so wonderful.”

Despite the good intentions of the many fans who participated in recent online efforts to battle police brutality in the U.S., there is still much work to be done within the greater K-pop fan community with regards to internal racism and xenophobia, both of which remain active issues. Though not the experience for everyone, Black fans who criticize artists for things like cultural appropriation, for example, are still routinely silenced by some others in the fan community.

RELATED: BTS’s Growing Fanbase Isn’t Just Teens, It’s Their Moms

“I love that fans are actively participating in the BLM movement in various positive capacities, be it donating, spreading awareness, or, and this is the most important to me, learning about the history of racism towards Black people,” says Sara Layne, a.k.a. Young Ajummah, a KCON panelist and Korean entertainment content creator. “While I appreciate this, I also want people to understand that there is a negative side to fandoms, too. It’s difficult for people, especially Black fans, to speak up and have a different thought, opinion, or stance on things.” There is also fear of retribution for speaking out among some Black fans. One of the most threatening retaliations is doxxing, or digging up and leaking someone’s personal information — which may include their full name, home address, family members’ identities, and/or phone number.

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Recently, Layne points out, a Black fan was harassed by multiple toxic fans on Twitter for voicing her criticism of BTS member Suga’s use of an audio sample of infamous cult leader Jim Jones on his solo album, D-2. “She stated that she didn't accept his apology and [some fans] tried to destroy her online ... This isn't the only time I've seen this happen [to a Black fan] but it is definitely the most alarming thing I've seen recently.” (Suga has since deleted the offending clip from the song.)

“[Fans] deal with racism and xenophobia already and I think that’s what lit that little bit of fire under them,” says Dallas. “I think the majority of us see our Black friends hurting and want to help them. Now, that’s not to say that everyone feels that way, because we do have a long way to go uplifting those Black voices. And some [fans] have tried to silence Black people during this time. But I think that what it boils down to is that as a collective, the majority of us are educated young women and we won’t stand for this bullshit.”

While there are certainly issues within the larger K-pop fandom that still need to be addressed, fans have more than proven their ability to effect positive change with their latest efforts against injustice, providing a glimmer of hope that those efforts can turn inward as well. As for burgeoning activists, what K-pop fans revealed over the past week is that digital disruption isn’t just possible in the fight for justice — it’s incredibly effective. And if the revolution is going to be soundtracked by K-pop, we’re excited to turn the volume up.

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