Over the past few weeks, journalists have become enthralled by a series of incidents connecting the online actions of fans of Korean pop music (K-pop) to social justice activism. In early June, the Dallas Police Department released a surveillance app and asked the public to submit pictures of protestors involved in so-called “illegal” activity. In response, some fans of K-pop flooded the app with fancams (short unofficial performance videos of K-pop idols), essentially rendering the app useless. K-pop fans flooded racist hashtags on twitter such as #whitelivesmatter with fancams as well, with the ostensible goal of diverting attention away from the racist intent of the hashtag.
Last week, the narrative of K-pop activists hit a critical mass after President Donald Trump’s recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which hosted 6,200 attendees after the Trump campaign boasted that 1 million people registered for tickets. After some K-pop fans and users of TikTok gleefully claimed responsibility for the prank, the story quickly took off, with celebrities and politicians expressing their admiration for the newly discovered K-pop comrades.
“KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too” posted New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a June 20 Twitter thread lauding Zoomers and TikTok teens for their ticket prank.
The media and political narrative around vigilante K-pop fans fits firmly into the “kids are alright” mythos of newly radicalized youth poised for passionate activism. The reality is more complicated.
Global K-pop fans organizing online for social good isn’t a novel occurrence; highly invested pop music fans are experts in quickly mobilizing on social media to trend hashtags on Twitter and help their favorite artists top music charts. Rapid response mobilization and amplification on social media is a huge element of online fan culture in general, but especially K-pop.
These tactics have been easily modified by these same fans for online campaigns for charity and social causes, often done under the names of their favorite idols, or the collective fandom name of said idol. What’s unusual is the mobilization of primarily U.S.-based K-pop fans around such a specific and urgent political moment as Black Lives Matter.
It’s also helpful to understand that the motivations of fans are often drawn from the identities that fans bring into these spaces. K-pop fandom is far from monolithic, even though the general assumption is that the majority of K-pop fans in the U.S. are mostly white, teenage girls. The reality is that many fans are often older and more racially diverse. The so-called “Korean wave,” the increase of global interest in Korean pop culture has existed since the 1990s, and the music’s strong influence from Black American sounds like hip-hop and R&B has attracted a large number of Black fans for many years.
Black fans have long been active in calling attention to issues of cultural appropriation and racism with both K-pop fandom and the industry itself, sometimes resulting in harassment and even doxxing by other K-pop fans. Black fans were especially vocal in calling upon K-pop idols to make public statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, posting comments to the Instagram and Twitter accounts of K-pop idols and the companies that employ them. This once again made Black fans targets of online harassment by other K-pop fans at the same time that the media was heralding the Black Lives Matter viral activism of K-pop fans.
While the narrative of K-pop fans as social justice saviors is hopeful and even charming when viewed from those outside of K-pop fan communities, the lauding of K-pop activism that neglects this additional knowledge contributes to the erasure of Black fans’ longtime efforts as well as their harassment within these communities.
As someone in the unique position of being a Black female K-pop fan that’s also a pop culture writer and a communications professional focused on social justice issues, it’s been frustrating to witness some of my peers eagerly (if somewhat jokingly) discuss the potential of mobilizing K-pop allies in digital campaigning without fully understanding the nuances of these digital spaces and the people active in them. Less than 24 hours after the Tulsa rally, the Lincoln Project PAC posted a low-key cringey tweet “welcoming” K-pop fans and TikTok teens to “this great cause” and soliciting their input and counsel.
I believe it’s crucially important for progressive organizers and campaigners to understand the nuances of this moment, especially those involved in culture change work with online communities. Not all of the fans participating in these mobilization efforts are motivated by their politics; some are simply motivated by garnering another online “win” and praise for their fandom. While that motivation doesn’t make these fans harmful, it doesn’t necessarily make them allies either.
The draw of K-pop fandom itself is not what organizers should focus on here, but the values of the individuals who comprise these communities. But as journalist Abby Ohlheiser recently wrote for the MIT Technology Review, the embrace of K-pop fans as roving #resistance warriors obscures a murkier reality about fans’ actual politics: “[N]ot every K-pop fan is anti-Trump, that even those who are protesting today may not protest tomorrow, and that the same strategies used for non-harmful protest have also been deployed by—and within—these same communities to hurt people, including or especially minorities.”
It’s personally difficult for me, as a participant within these communities, to view pop culture fandom as a reliable and consistent tool for activism. K-pop fan activism can be valuable, and an entry point for meaningful progressive change, but the focus of any pop culture fan community, ultimately, is to support a corporate interest: an artist and by design, the company that artist works for.
In an age where fan consumption is often linked to both personal identity and social action, genuine engagement of these online fan activists as the citizens and constituents they are outside of fandom, is the crucial element needed to mobilize them for systemic social change.
K-pop fans are not a monolith of giddy teen keyboard warriors but a community as heterogeneous—and sometimes messy—as any other community, online and off. Understanding this—and being mindful of the benefits and pitfalls of this community’s potential influence—is more constructively hopeful than any hero narrative could ever be.