With its catchy tunes, absurdly attractive performers, and the power to unite fans from all over the world, K-pop has become a force to be reckoned with. Groups such as BTS and Blackpink have been conquering the world, one continent at a time and have recruited armies of adoring fans. What previously seemed like lighthearted and uplifting entertainment, though, is quickly becoming something much, much more. With the recent political unrest in the US, young K-pop fans have emerged as an unexpected force for social justice and equality.
There’s a lot to be said about K-pop. So much, in fact, that Netflix’s docuseries, Explained, devoted an entire episode to discussing its meteoric success as a genre. If you’re unfamiliar with K-pop, do yourself a favour and watch that. Then get onto Youtube, and treat your eyes to the plethora high-budget and extravagant music videos you’ll find there, before returning to this article.
Apart from the entertainment value – and it seems the world has unanimously decided that that’s pretty high – K-pop seems to be serving another, more important function: It’s uniting its fans, and motivating them to make the world a better place.
That sounds like an exaggeration, doesn’t it? But in 2020 alone, K-pop fans have managed to band together and act in ways that have made tangible, and necessary changes.
How K-pop fans weaponised the internet in support of Black Lives Matter
Unless you’ve been living under some kind of massive, soundproof rock, you’ll have seen news (and a lot of it) about BLM protests around the world. What you may not have heard about, though, is the way K-pop fans have unified and become vigilantes for the cause – vigilantes with considerable influence.
In fact, K-pop fans alone posted over 6.1 billion tweets in 2019, making the community an indisputable global force online. Need further proof of their power on the world wide web? THIS post by BTS was the most retweeted post worldwide in 2019:
— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) June 9, 2019
It should come as no surprise, then, that this army of fans have been harnessing their power in 2020 too. Not only did the K-pop community in the US –and the Korean record labels themselves – raise funds to support the BLM movement, but they also hijacked hashtags used by its opposition.
After the death of George Floyd, hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter began flooding the internet in an attempt to raise awareness and spread information about racial inequality and police brutality in the US. At the same time, those who opposed the movement began sharing tags like #WhiteLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter and #WhiteoutWednesday.
So, K-pop fans did what they had been doing all along: they posted countless memes and videos of their favourite groups and members. This time, though, they did so using those same anti-black hashtags – effectively drowning out the voice of the opposition online. Now when you search the anti-black tags, you’re probably going to find something like this:
— Namjin_Hope (@Dialu_dmonz) June 4, 2020
Aja Romano, for Vox, explains that “on Instagram, although the “whitelivesmatter” tag is completely swamped with K-pop and anime references, white supremacist messages and troll memes also continue to appear. The resulting discord, however, makes the tag more or less useless — and on Twitter, most people, it seems, are delighted by the entire concept”.
They didn’t only take control of the Twittersphere and Instagram to support the BLM movement. They also spammed, and shut down, an app run by the Dallas Police Department.
According to CNN, the Dallas PD “asked people on Twitter to submit video of ‘illegal activity from the protests’ to its iWatch Dallas app. But instead K-pop fans flooded the app with fancams”. That same afternoon, they tweeted again: “Due to technical difficulties iWatch Dallas app will be down temporarily.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a fancam is generally a video filmed by an audience member during a live performance by a K-pop group – usually zoomed in to focus on that person’s favourite group member ( also called their “bias”).
Abby Ohlheiser, writing for MIT Technology Review described the attack as follows: “fans of Korean pop music downloaded the police department’s app en masse, rallied each other to flood it with short, fan-produced videos, and gave it low ratings to make it less visible in the app store. Several hours later, the police announced that the app was temporarily offline.”
here’s a video, i’ll dm you some more💕pic.twitter.com/VihMsrI81M
— sterre 生✿ (@marvelous70s) May 31, 2020
Since then, the K-pop fandom has been summoned to other missions, and seem to have heeded those calls with enthusiasm:
It would be a shame if kpop twitter got a hold of this pic.twitter.com/L1rWoVqNlX
— yosub wyd ⁷ (@yosub) June 4, 2020
K-pop fandom for social justice
In times of crisis, everybody loves a vigilante – especially when in the form of an unlikely hero. The K-pop fans who came together to fight for a cause they believed in may make a particularly interesting narrative, writes Ohlheiser, 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.”
The stereotype of K-pop fandom being limited to white, teenage girls obscures the real diversity of the community. As a result, it may be easy to overlook the fact that they’re a considerable – and growing – online force.
“Their ability to dominate online conversation is not an accident,” writes Ohlheiser. “Learning how to get views on behalf of your favourite 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…They make memes, like fancams 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.”
And this isn’t even the first time they’re harnessed their power for good. Ohlheiser explains that “in the past decade, this has included donating to create forests carrying the name of their favourite group or idol, creating donation drives, and elevating campaigns promoted by celebrities”.
The BLM movement may have faded slightly from our newsfeeds, but that doesn’t mean the issue has been resolved. If, like many allies of the cause, you’ve wondering how to further promote and aid it, you may have been looking in the wrong places. And if until now, you’ve managed to ignore it as its influence expands across the planet, now’s as good a time as any to jump into – and delight in – the vibrant world of K-pop.
Wanna learn more about this cultural phenomenon that’s sweeping the globe? Check out Vox’s Beginner’s Guide to K-pop.