In sure corners of the web, the organizing prowess of Ok-pop followers — the sometimes younger and various worldwide fanatics of Korean pop music who congregate every day on social media — has lengthy been the stuff of legend: By coordinated group motion, so-called fan armies of acts like BTS and Blackpink guarantee that their favourite idols are trending matters who lead the music charts and promote out stadiums from South Korea to the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles and Citi Subject in New York.
Now, amid a pandemic, a forthcoming presidential election and inescapable conversations about race, this unfastened collective of digital warriors is attempting to exert its affect in a brand new realm: the American political enviornment.
Spurred at first by the continued Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, Ok-pop stans made themselves recognized exterior of music circles this weekend, when some took credit score for serving to to inflate expectations for President Trump’s rally in Oklahoma by reserving tickets they’d no plans to make use of. However whereas the Trump marketing campaign has denied that the pointed prank affected rally attendance, blaming protesters and the information media as a substitute, the decision to motion in Ok-pop circles revealed a rising realization that followers’ environment friendly social-media ways for fund-raising or singing go viral may also be used for political activism.
In current weeks, Ok-pop devotees — who use Twitter as a house base, however proliferate throughout TikTok, Fb, Instagram and different platforms — have spammed a birthday card for President Trump, disrupted a Dallas police app seeking intelligence on protesters and flooded would-be white supremacist hashtags, whereas additionally asserting that they’d matched a $1 million donation from BTS for Black Lives Matter teams. And in step with the rising recognition of Ok-pop in the USA, many of those budding digital activists may be Americans, in accordance with specialists.
“The English-speaking Ok-pop followers who’re getting concerned on this, who’re up on these points, these are usually not foreigners,” mentioned CedarBough Saeji, an instructional who research Ok-pop fan tradition. “These are Individuals.”
“That these younger, socially progressive, outward-looking people who find themselves actually adept at utilizing these on-line platforms — who’re caught at house and on-line much more due to Covid-19 — that these persons are doing political issues is no surprise,” added Ms. Saeji, a visiting assistant professor of East Asian tradition at Indiana College Bloomington. “These are younger people who find themselves utterly keen to study a brand new tradition to comply with their curiosity in some pop-culture product. These are precisely the type of people who find themselves the other of the Trump viewers that claps when he disses ‘Parasite’ and says that ‘Gone With the Wind’ is a real movie.”
In the days since Mr. Trump’s rally in Tulsa, no evidence has emerged that South Korean fans of K-pop were involved in any significant way in the “no-show” campaign. South Korean news media instead relayed American reports from Tulsa, treating the episode mainly as a gag by teenage fans of K-pop and TikTok users in the United States.
South Koreans tend to follow U.S. elections closely because they could affect alliance relations between Washington and Seoul, and American policy on North Korea. But they generally remain wary of taking sides in U.S. politics. Mr. Trump has been quite popular among liberal South Koreans, together with younger folks, by elevating hopes that his diplomacy with North Korea’s chief, Kim Jong-un, might produce a breakthrough in long-stalled talks on ending the North’s nuclear menace and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.
On Monday, some South Koreans responded to the information from Tulsa by expressing concern about how Mr. Trump may react. “Why does Ok-pop meddle in an American political dispute,” wrote one reader of a neighborhood newspaper article in regards to the rally.
However whereas Ok-pop tradition in South Korea is a largely apolitical mainstream concern, leaving fan armies to deal with boosting album gross sales and propping up their idols, the neighborhood’s place as a subculture in the USA could lend itself to extra radical gestures, particularly at a time of elevated political polarization.
“Though Ok-pop’s message just isn’t essentially political in an overt sense, they’re typically about empowerment and self-confidence,” mentioned the writer of the “Ask a Korean!” blog, who makes use of the pen title T.Ok. Park. “A lot of first-time Ok-pop followers, for instance, acquired into BTS as a result of the group’s message of ‘love your self’ strongly resonated with them.” And since such content material has attracted an viewers made up largely of ladies and other people of colour, Mr. Park added, “this message pushes them to be extra expressive with each facet of their lives, together with politics.”
They’d additionally already honed the required abilities. “Ok-pop followers realized the way to manage by means of their fandom,” Mr. Park mentioned. “Ok-pop is a digital-native music,” he added, and South Korea’s early adoption of nationwide broadband service “made Korean pop music reply to the calls for of the web, and in addition made Ok-pop’s fandom essentially the most refined actors within the digital sphere.” He pointed to the near-constant campaigns to flood radio stations with tune requests or promote out live performance tickets in a matter of minutes as a coaching floor: “All of those actions may be translated into politics very simply.”
Nicole Santero, a fan and Ph.D. scholar with a deal with the BTS Military who additionally runs the data-focused @ResearchBTS account, discovered that in Could, there have been only two days when a time period associated to the group was not trending worldwide on Twitter.
“Generally they don’t even imply to pattern, however there’s so lots of them that generally they unintentionally pattern random phrases,” she mentioned. “They’re actually, actually passionate individuals who simply battle for what they love. These traits translate effectively once you take a look at social points.”
A spokeswoman for Twitter mentioned that Ok-pop was essentially the most tweeted about music style worldwide, with greater than 6.1 billion tweets in 2019, a rise of 15 p.c from the 12 months earlier than. BTS was essentially the most tweeted about artist for the final three years, the corporate added. TikTok and Fb declined to supply information.
The current flip towards political activism in the USA additionally follows a concerted effort by Ok-pop followers lately to make constructive change en masse, partly as a response to the teams’ reputations as superficial, foolish and even menacing mobs. Like essentially the most fervent fan bases of American pop stars — together with Justin Bieber’s Beliebers, Beyoncé’s BeyHive or Nicki Minaj’s Barbz, recognized collectively as “stans” after the Eminem tune about an obsessive stalker — Ok-pop followers have been accused of harassment for piling onto critics or rivals. In South Korea, they have also been viewed as overly fawning, and even cultlike, banding together, for instance, to buy presents like luxury watches for famous singers.
But these days, philanthropic donations to uncontroversial causes like the poor, the old or the terminally ill — often in made in the name of chosen artists — are more common. “This was a way to remake fandom in the eyes of the public,” Ms. Saeji said.
Black Lives Matter in particular may have represented an urgent cause to K-pop fans given the artists’ debt to hip-hop culture and black music, with groups like BTS having been accused in the past of cultural appropriation. “Artists, directors, writers, dancers, designers, producers, stylists in the K-pop industry are all inspired by black culture whether they acknowledge it or not,” the South Korean singer and rapper CL wrote recently on Instagram.
“You have got Ok-pop followers educating different Ok-pop followers about this,” Ms. Saeji mentioned, noting the overarching enthusiasm throughout topics each severe and playful. “You’ll be able to go on Ok-pop Twitter and you will notice any individual put up about Black Lives Matter after which 10 minutes later put up one thing in regards to the cutest idol that they’re completely fan-girling over. They don’t see a contradiction there.”
“What’s actually essential about this whole factor is that younger persons are seeing their political energy, they’re flexing and they’re feeling it,” she added. “And you realize what they’re going to do subsequent? They will vote. These Ok-pop followers are usually not feeling cynical proper now. They’re feeling empowered.”
Taylor Lorenz contributed reporting from New York; Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from South Korea.