The Civic Hijinks of K-pop’s Super Fans - Data & Society: Points
K-pop fandoms, normally known for their dedication to South Korean music “idols,” made headlines this past month, between their social media manipulation to “defuse racist hashtags” and amplify the circulation of “petitions and fundraisers” for victims during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and their apparent foiling of Trump’s recent political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The social media manipulation strategies of K-pop fandoms have been so impactful that hashtag trends such as #BanKpopAccounts have accused them of ruining user experiences and called to ban them. But some recent coverage on the power and sway that K-pop fans have over social media information ecologies has presented (unwittingly) truncated histories, (parochially) centered American K-pop fans, and cast these fan activities as somehow novel or even surprising.
Yet, the opposite is true.
K-pop fans, many of whom have mastered the power of social media manipulation and (mis)information via their intensely intimate relationships with their beloved idols, have a long history of utilizing their platforms in the service of social justice. It is absolutely necessary that the recent BLM activism of K-pop fans be historicized within this broader, global narrative, and that K-pop fans be recognized as more than just “bandwagoners” jumping at a media movement to simply “promote their faves.”
South Korean entertainment companies recognized early on the transformative potentials of the internet, from the late-1990s uses of first generation Social Networking Site Cyworld to present-day mobilizations of social media. The K-pop industry played an influential role in the development of digital fandom, deploying social media services such as Twitter, Instagram, and the live-streaming app VLive to provide fans opportunities to interact directly with idols. For instance, it is routine for idols to interact with fans in live broadcast countdowns upon the release of each new song, just as it’s common for agencies to release poster and video teasers/trailers on Twitter and Instagram in the lead up to a ‘comeback’ or new release. Such intense social media interactions in turn boosted the strong sense of intimacy between idols and their fans, as well as allowed fans to regularly commune with each other in digital spaces. As a result, K-pop fans formed “tribes” who strategically draw upon the affordances of social media to promote their favorite idols on the world stage, allowing K-pop to go global.
For instance, K-pop fans often facilitate ‘bulk pre-orders’ to increase album sales; host mass ‘streaming parties’ on YouTube, Spotify, and Shazam to increase music chart impact in a move known as “chart jacking”; plan “coordinated hashtag campaigns” on Twitter to signal boost their favorite group; or “keyword stuff” search terms on Twitter to alter SEO results and clear or bury bad press. Fans are also concerned over the wellbeing of idols, closely monitoring their personal safety and petitioning for agencies to take action, calling for fair representation in promotional material, and demanding for choreographies to be modified for the health of idols.
However, idol support initiatives have also culminated in elaborate schemes, such as the BLACKPINK Starbucks hoax of April 2019: A rumour claimed that streaming any song from BLACKPINK would earn listeners a free drink from Starbucks through a digital voucher claimed via Twitter direct messaging or by showing “receipts” to the barista in the form of screen grabs of the streaming. Various Starbucks social media managers had their hands full clarifying this misinformation.
K-pop fans have always been political
K-pop fans deploy their networks and social media clout to consistently raise awareness of charitable causes, sharing resources across the globe to make the world a better place. K-pop fan activism within the BLM movement emerges from this broader history.
Fans have mobilized support networks in the service of social justice as acts of cybervigilantism, with many clubs hosting charity events in honor of idols that are tied to these broader support projects. The recent Australian bushfires in January 2020 saw dozens of fandoms join forces to raise relief funds, with some even adopting wildlife in the name of their favorite idol. Fans of BTS alone have reportedly engaged with over 600 charity projects around the globe addressing a variety of issues. In fact, charity work is so essential to K-pop fandom that an app exists in South Korea where fans can record the amount of donations made on behalf of an idol group to develop a “charity angel” ranking.
Fans have mobilized support networks in the service of social justice as acts of cybervigilantism…
Social media campaigns have also regularly been hosted by K-pop fans seeking to hold K-pop stars and the industry accountable. As an expression of their strong support for idols, fans consistently call on K-pop groups to do better when they perceive that they have slipped up. For instance, fans were vocal in calling out racially insensitive performances such as when fans pressured girl group MAMAMOO to apologize for performing in blackface during a concert in 2017. Agencies, media outlets, and fandoms have also been called out for colorism and photo-editing idols’ images to preference fairer, whiter skin.
…the activism of K-pop fans within the BLM movement is situated within broader social media debates surrounding anti-blackness within the K-pop fandom itself.
Likewise, Black K-pop fans regularly express frustration at the persistent appropriation of Black culture and hip-hop fashion within the K-pop industry, for instance the persistent appropriation of braids, cornrows, and dreadlocks in K-pop styling. Recently, fans voiced dissatisfaction with BTS’s J-Hope, who was criticized for appropriating dreadlocks in the music video of the song “Chicken Noodle Soup ft. Becky G.” Indeed, the activism of K-pop fans within the BLM movement is situated within broader social media debates surrounding anti-blackness within the K-pop fandom itself.
Apart from racism, several other K-pop fan initiatives focus on combating misogyny and abuse, in light of the rise of ‘molka’ or spycam incidents that prey on women and digital sex crimes (like the April 2020 Nth Room scandal) in South Korea. Considering the fact that young women make up a significant demographic in K-pop fandom, it is unsurprising that fans’ activism has evolved to also address discrimination against women around the world.
K-pop fandom as subversive frivolity
K-pop consumption is not an apolitical act and its fans are not disengaged or obsessive teenagers seeking to troll the world due to their sense of millennial ennui. Rather, K-pop fans in South Korea, Asia, and beyond are critical consumers who deliberately and explicitly act to address social justice concerns by harnessing their high visibility and strong community on social media networks. As noted by The Korea Herald reporter Hyunsu Yim, “the largely female, diverse & LGBT makeup” of K-pop fandoms are primed to push back against the “male dominant/less diverse/more right-wing” online discourses through their social media activism.
The vernacular social media manipulation expertise of these fans has been honed since K-pop’s humble beginnings on websites and forums, where their fan activity is often cast as playful and feminized activity; but it is exactly this underestimation and under-valuation of K-pop fan networks, knowledge, and labor that has allowed millions of K-pop fandoms to evade sociocultural surveillance, optimize platforms’ algorithmic radars, and spread their messages far and wide in acts of subversive frivolity.
Whether it is to persuade you to stream a song or to protest against social injustice, you can be sure that K-pop fandoms are always ready to mobilize, fueled by ferocious fan dedication, and remain extremely social media savvy.
Dr. Crystal Abidin is Senior Research Fellow & ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University (Perth, Australia). Learn more at wishcrys.com.
Dr. Thomas Baudinette is Lecturer in International Studies, Department of International Studies: Languages and Cultures, Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia). Learn more at thomasbaudinette.wordpress.com.