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K-pop stans have recently come into the digital spotlight after leading efforts online to spam a police app with fancams and flood hashtags on Twitter and Instagram in order to drown out racist posts.
The actions stans have taken amid Black Lives Matter are built on a fandom history of digitally organizing around trending hashtags or leading charity campaigns for non-profits.
While the majority of the attention the K-pop fandom has experienced recently has been positive, it fails to address the racism that Black fans still face in the community.
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In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and amid Black Lives Matter protests, there’s been a paradigm shift in the perception of K-pop stans online. While locals (non-stans) have typically had an adversarial relationship with K-pop fandom in the past, recent events have shaken that relationship up.
K-pop stans have made their presence known across the US and around the world. They spammed a police app with fancams, took over hashtags on Twitter and Instagram in an effort to drown out racist posts, worked to stop their own hashtags from trending out of respect for #BlackLivesMatter, and in the case of BTS’ ARMY, matched the group’s $1 million Black Lives Matter donation in approximately a day.
Reactions to those events typically bore a tone of shock or surprise, with Twitter users later using the #kpopstans hashtag to express appreciation or to alert stans of another hashtag. As MIT Technology Review’s Abby Ohlheiser noted, “Online culture loves a vigilante in times of crisis.”
—❖ Zo⁷🦇⟭⟬𖧵 🐳🐋 (@sgsseokie) June 4, 2020
Previously, locals have complained about fancams (short fandom-focused videos or edits) and argued that stans are too quick to start cancelation hashtags. Now, fancams are a good thing and K-pop stans are being praised by celebrities like Keke Palmer and Jordan Peele.
While the public’s change of heart around K-pop stans may come as a surprise, what doesn’t is the fact that K-pop stans were able to mobilize so quickly. Modern K-pop fandom, after a decade of leveraging social media as a way to bring awareness to artists and using fandom organizing to raise money for worldwide causes, is built around digital organization on a massive scale.
K-pop stans have a history of organizing digital campaigns
K-pop fans have a long history of mobilizing around projects related to their artists, and that’s part of what makes quick, collective action so possible. K-pop fans are well-accustomed to trending hashtags around new releases, and they’re quick to respond to new content: for instance, BTS released a new music video on June 11 for the song “We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal.” Within an hour, ARMY (BTS fans) were trending #WeAreBulletproofTheEternal to celebrate the new release.
Even if K-pop fans sometimes trend a hashtag or keyword on Twitter without intending to (this happens frequently), fans work to trend things on purpose plenty of the time as well, sometimes voting and deliberately choosing when and how to trend tags for birthdays, music drops, or other events.
Fanbases of individual groups publicize voting campaigns to their significant followings on Twitter that typically number in the thousands; many fandoms focus on voting for idols on Korean music shows so that they can notch their first coveted music show win, a major signifier of success.
Post-“Gangnam Style,” PSY’s breakthrough 2012 hit that brought Korean pop music into the US mainstream, fans turned towards platforms like YouTube and Twitter primarily to try and increase K-pop’s visibility online, said Michelle Cho, a professor of East Asian popular cultures at the University of Toronto who specializes in Korean film, media, and the Korean wave. Cho also recently spoke with MIT Technology Review.
“[K-pop fans] have developed a certain kind of repertoire and skills on how to use social media platforms to bring things to prominence,” Cho told Insider. “I think that the K-pop fandom over time has developed an awareness that they can have influence in this way.”
Recent works of so-called “fancam activism,” like flooding hashtags like #whitelivesmatter with videos of dancing K-pop idols, was possible because K-pop stans were able to leverage the stability of pre-existing fandom networks in order to coordinate to take over tags (it’s worth noting that K-pop stans have a reputation on local Twitter for starting or commandeering #isoverparty hashtags).
Furthermore, through engaging in public acts like disrupting racist posts on social platforms, stans also stand to change public opinion of the fandom itself. Boy band fandoms have been denigrated in frequently sexist ways since the Beatles era, but Cho says that K-pop fans could present themselves in a different light, as a group of “diverse, politically progressive, social media savvy people.”
BTS fans matching the band’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter relied on previous fandom systems
One of the most compelling events in K-pop fans’ wave of digital activism was a massive fundraising campaign by BTS’ ARMY in an effort to match the group’s million-dollar donation to Black Lives Matter.
The campaign was successful — just a day after Variety reported BTS’ contribution, ARMY managed to collectively raise the same amount, splitting donations across organizations like Reclaim the Block, the NAACP, and Black Lives Matter. One in an ARMY, (OIAA) a volunteer collective of BTS fans who have been organizing monthly charity projects since 2018, tracked the donations through a split donation page on ActBlue.
Erika Overton, who does outreach and communications for OIAA, told Insider that the group typically plans out its charity projects months in advance in order to liaise with non-profits and prepare campaign materials. That model doesn’t allow for quick responses to crisis events — in those cases, OIAA typically compiles threads of resources for ARMYs who want to help.
—One in an ARMY⁷ Charity Project 💜 (@OneInAnARMY) June 1, 2020
On June 1, OIAA put out a Carrd website listing donation pages for non-profits as well as the split donation page that became the lynchpin of the #MatchAMillion campaign. Overton said that ARMYs had donated upwards of $50,000 before news of BTS’ donation broke on June 6. After ARMY decided to try to match it and settled on the #MatchAMillion hashtag, the Carrd began to circulate widely and donations began to climb into the hundred-thousands.
The donation match was possible due to existing fandom structures like One in an ARMY. However, just as OIAA itself originated from a group of ARMYs wanting to leverage the fandom’s power to raise money for Syrian relief in 2018, the #MatchAMillion campaign started with ARMYs calling on each other.
“These kinds of things are not usual,” Overton said. “But when BTS themselves actually make a statement… that’s like pouring rocket fuel on a fire that’s already burning. So when they did their donation, [ARMY] was like, heck yeah, we’re doing this.”
K-pop fandoms, however, are still full of anti-Blackness
Recent attention regarding ARMY’s donation match or the fancam activism has largely referenced “K-pop stans” as if they were a homogenous group, rather than a diverse set of people who vary in terms of race, age, country of origin, gender, and political beliefs. Flattening the broad fandom into a singular force fails to account for the racism that Black K-pop stans face.
Most recently, BigHit Entertainment and BTS’ Suga apologized for using a sample of cult leader Jim Jones, who was responsible for the death of hundreds of his followers, many of whom were Black. Prior to the apology, and the removal of the sample from the track, some Black fans who had raised concerns over the sample were harassed and labeled as “antis” attempting to defame Suga’s reputation.
Cho says that these kinds of situations are how anti-Blackness frequently manifests in K-pop fandoms: some Black K-pop fans will call out an idol for cultural appropriation, blackface, or any other anti-Black action, and fans of an idol or group will become defensive and angry at those who leveled the criticism. “The reason why some fans don’t see that as an expression of systemic racism is that they really feel like, ‘No, we’re just defending our individual idol against these unfair attacks,” she said.
Black fans are sometimes left out of the conversation when it comes to anti-racist efforts
Black fans have been left out of much of the conversation about K-pop fandom’s recent viral anti-racism efforts, said Ellie Forte, a 19-year-old Black K-pop stan who goes by @nctbussyy on Twitter and primarily follows SM Entertainment groups. “When it came to talking about, ‘Oh, K-pop fans are revolutionary, they’re combatting racism,’ what people forgot about a lot was that Black stans were the ones who were really bringing up awareness about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Ellie said that Black fans’ voices are silenced in K-pop fandom, most recently when she saw K-pop fans continuing to spread videos of George Floyd’s death, especially without trigger warnings, despite Black fans asking them to stop doing so. She said that she’s also seen pushback against Black fans who call on idols to speak up about Black Lives Matter.
De’Andra, a 23-year-old Black K-pop stan who goes by @tytaped on Twitter and preferred to not use her last name, said that she has seen Black fans harassed and doxxed for speaking up about idols’ actions in addition to seeing K-pop accounts pretending to be Black, using AAVE (African American Vernacular English), and weighing in on issues “as a ‘Black’ person.”
Certain efforts by groups of K-pop stans can also have effects other than those intended. De’Andra said that while she thought that spamming the Dallas police app and hashtags used to attempt to identify protesters were clever, she didn’t like how the tactic was applied to hashtags like #whitelivesmatter because they ended up trending higher than they had been previously.
“[The trending hashtags] triggered a lot of black people actually. Sometimes, we don’t realize how counterproductive our actions can be,” Ellie said. “I may see it as counterproductive, but another Black person may see it as, ‘Oh my gosh, this was great because I don’t have to see racist posts.'”
Some Black fans feel that idols have a responsibility to speak up
As The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote, many K-pop stans were taking action to support protests even before their favorite idols spoke up. Still though, idols speaking up does make a difference — while some BTS fans were already donating and working to support Black Lives Matter long before BTS spoke out in support on June 4 or their donation was made public, the group’s action indubitably spurred the fandom into re-action with the donation campaign.
More importantly, however, idols speaking out does matter to some Black fans, particularly given the extent to which K-pop draws on Black culture. In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, Natasha Mulenga argued that K-pop artists should keep speaking up about Black Lives Matter due to K-pop’s roots in and reliance on Black culture.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking now more than ever when I hear [K-pop artists] say that they care about and appreciate the support of all their fans if I am included in this, if Black people are included in this,” De’Andra said.
Ellie, along with other Black K-pop fans including De’Andra, @DavonnaDarling, and @BlaxSeoul, organized a hashtag project for June 12 calling on SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s major entertainment companies, to use its platform to “stand in solidarity with Black people in our fight for racial and social equality in all areas.”
Early in the morning on June 12, people began to use the hashtags #SMBLACKOUT and #SMUseYourPlatform to call on SM Entertainment to speak out, with some expressing that they wouldn’t support the company until they did so. While some SM Entertainment idols like NCT’s Johnny and Red Velvet’s Yeri have spoken out on social media, SM Entertainment has not made a public statement.
Ultimately, Ellie said that it’s important to listen to Black fans and include them in conversations about K-pop fandom. However, she said that anti-Blackness is far from exclusive to K-pop stan spaces online: “Even though Black K-pop stans are finding themselves stuck in this anti-Black fandom, they can’t go anywhere else because every fandom has anti-Blackness in it,” she said. “Black fans, no matter where they go, don’t have those safe spaces really to just be themselves.”
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