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Commentary: K-pop’s hardcore fans are propelling social movements, but have blind spots

There’s a growing desire among youth to pair fandom with activism, but such a movement is vulnerable, says Dymples Leong.

Commentary: K-pop’s hardcore fans are propelling social movements, but have blind spots

Fans of South Korean group BTS at a concert in New York. (Photo: AFP/Dia Dipasupil)

SINGAPORE: As protestors in America mourned the death of George Floyd, the hastag #BlackLivesMatter was trending on social media platforms with solidarity posts worldwide as a protest against police brutality.

The big boost for #BlackLivesMatter can be attributed to Korean popular music (K-pop) superfans, or “stans”.

Using a variety of online tactics, K-pop stans worldwide drowned out hashtags associated with right-wing causes with K-pop videos and memes.

More recently, K-pop stans and teenage TikTok users inflated the number of registered tickets for US President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa as a prank, resulting in an underwhelming attendance.

What does this organic mobilisation and crowdsourcing signify, and what can be inferred from the role of non-state, decentralised groups online?

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Fandom has evolved over the decades beyond the stereotype of teenage, mostly female fans into a diverse community with active, engaged participants.

The international popularity of K-pop has exemplified the phenomenon of a globalised community with shared narratives and experiences. K-pop fandoms are made up of highly globalised and diversified communities online – from different races, ethnicities, ages and countries.

The identification of shared experiences builds connections between disparate people, uniting loose networks into tight communities.

A generation of fans skilled in online mobilisation, with organisational skills and a keen understanding of social media, has enabled new and ongoing efforts to showcase and boost the support of the fandom’s artistes.

This collaborative effort promotes hashtags and topics relating to the performer or fandom to trend, and also fosters a strong sense of social connectivity.

Fans show their support for K-pop act BTS. (Photo: AFP/Ed JONES) BTS connect with their largely female fans -- collectively known as ARMY -- through their music and on social media AFP/Ed JONES

K-pop fans are also known for being hugely supportive of charitable causes online. Online mobilisation via crowdfunding includes donating to charities and volunteering in emergency situations.

Supporting charitable causes is viewed as giving back to the community and the wider society. Fans are also motivated by the desire to make their favourite artists proud of their efforts.

Global stans of K-pop band BTS, known as ARMY (Adorable Representative MC for Youth), have supported more than 630 charity projects. For instance, a group of Singapore fans of BTS has partnered with local charity Willing Hearts to raise funds for underprivileged and vulnerable Singaporeans.

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A BTS fan collective, One In An ARMY, has also encouraged fans to contribute micro-donations to non-profit initiatives in Syria and Rwanda.

K-pop fans of bands Blackpink and EXO in China contributed funds and donated medical supplies to fight against COVID-19 in Hubei province.

The fluidity and nimble responsiveness of the fandom has led to agile repurposing of support and amplification for their favourite K-pop artists to social activism campaigns – leveraging the fandom’s digital savviness, creativity and mobilisation experience.

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Various strategies contributed to the scale of coordinated response online. Content spamming and trolling with fancams (short video clips of an artist dancing or singing) was predominantly used.

Fancams – traditionally shared by K-pop stans in response to unrelated social media posts to promote their favourite artists – were used against digital efforts by the police. The Dallas police department’s iWatch app, for instance, reportedly crashed when K-pop stans overwhelmed the app with fancams.

Right-wing hashtags (e.g #whiteoutwednesday, #MAGA) were subjected to hijacking. Fancams and memes were tagged with popular right-wing hashtags, and were used to take over and drown out right-wing narratives.

A man holds a picture of George Floyd during a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City AFP/Jeenah Moon

The use of #BlackLivesMatter further enabled the formation of signposts in which conversations centred around the protests could be galvanised by the international fan community.

Hashtags promoted by police departments as tip lines for information were also taken over, causing them to trend under Twitter’s K-pop label.

Stans also amplified resources shared by Black Lives Matter activists online. K-pop fan groups and accounts with huge followings (e.g. BTS, Blackpink) promoted helplines and resources. BTS stans rallied under the #MatchAMillion hashtag to raise more than US$1 million in 25 hours to match BTS’ seven-figure contribution for the Black Lives Matter movement.

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While this has demonstrated the agility and effectiveness of social media and its galvanisation towards social activism causes, it raises questions around online mobilisation.

One issue that could arise is concern about efforts by state or non-state actors to exploit a situation by using sock-puppet or bot-like accounts. These accounts could be used to disrupt, wrest back or counter trending narratives online.

Though there is no evidence that bots or sock-puppet accounts participated in #whiteoutwednesday or other affiliated hashtags, the exploitation and utilisation of such influence tactics could potentially be abused and exploited.

This approach is not novel. The US Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2018 detailed Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election. It highlighted that the Internet Research Agency (IRA) utilised social-media influence campaigns to exploit and amplify existing racism and racial conflict in the United States.

Russia's notorious troll farm the Internet Research Agency manipulated social media to discourage African Americans from voting in the 2016 US presidential election. (Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri/Lional Bonaventure)

Sock-puppet and troll accounts could join or insert themselves into online social groups, such as fandoms, and use false alibis to potentially embed themselves within the group, and into the greater fandom community itself.

As greater socio-political engagement and activism from fandoms increase, sock-puppet and troll accounts could potentially advance disinformation and influence campaigns to foment division and amplifying propaganda.

Concern of overzealous fans who might take vigilantism efforts too far have also arisen. Accounts of doxxing and spamming efforts on Twitter have occurred, and could potentially lead to a tit-for-tat retaliatory response online.

While stan Twitter has demonstrated its effectiveness in amplifying and mainstreaming important social issues online, the question of the sustainability of such campaigns in the long run remains. A quick shift in public opinion resulting from successful campaigns runs the risk of dissipating over time.

If anything, the digital disruption displayed by K-pop stans reflect a growing urgency for new forms of social action.

Dymples Leong is a Senior Analyst with Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This commentary first appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.

Source: CNA/el