If you had told me one year ago today that in June of 2020 I’d be quarantined at home, diving headfirst down a deep rabbit-hole of K-pop and Black Lives Matter activism, I would have pondered whether you were in a sane state of mind. Yet, here we are, and over the past month K-pop stans have seemingly staked their claim to political legitimacy in the USA’s ever growing digital landscape.
Reports on the K-pop fandom’s (apparently) sudden politicization began in early June, when K-pop stans began to flood anti-BLM hashtags (#whitelivesmatter, #alllivesmatter, etc.) with fancams. However, their efforts went beyond hashtag derailment, as the fanbase went on to shut down the Dallas Police Department’s iWatch app in an effort to protect BLM protestors from police arrests based on anonymous tips.
Since then, celebrities such as Monsta X, Got7, Jay Park, Amber Liu and CL have come out in support of the BLM movement, as well as acknowledging the debt that K-pop, and the music industry as a whole, owes to black artists. Additionally, BTS — one of the most popular Korean boy bands of all time — donated $1 million dollars to BLM, a donation that inspired matching efforts from their fans (ARMY) as well as John Cena. K-pop stans, as well as the general TikTok fanbase, went on to take credit for ticket-trolling Trump’s comeback rally in Tulsa, an act which led to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting, “Shout out to Zoomers. Y’all make me so proud.”
At this point, I would like to emphasize the sheer absurdity of this entire situation. To summarize: K-pop fans flooded federal databases with fancams and raised over a million dollars for BLM, John Cena followed suit and AOC gave a shout out to Zoomers. Memelords, eat your hearts out.
Yet, despite what initially struck me as the overarching bizarreness of this sequence of events, humanitarianism within K-pop fan bases is not a new phenomenon. As Hyunsu Yim, a contributor to The Korea Herald, noted in a Twitter thread, stan Twitter has a history of activism, ranging from supporting student protests in Bangladesh to being named by the Chilean government as a causative factor in creating anti-police discourse during Chile’s 2019-2020 protests. Contrary to popular perception, K-pop fans aren’t just pre-pubescent koreaboos. As Gen Z individuals, K-pop stans grew up during an era of social justice and widespread technological advancement, and as such they have the capacity and skills to weaponize social media.
For stan Twitter, this moment represents a new era of legitimacy. Major news outlets seem to have recognized the potential of social media networks for political disruption, and the K-pop community’s support for BLM has entered headlines across the political spectrum. For once, stories of stan Twitter activity have become something that older, less tech-savvy generations can applaud, rather than criticize as a symptom of the younger generation’s moral decline.
In part because of COVID-19, internet activism has taken on a new level of importance, and more than ever, the world is watching the next generation. Yet, despite this newfound recognition, the question remains whether social media activism is an inherent good.
I’ll admit that I have a fair amount of personal bias in this area. In my personal life, I’ve identified social media as a type of social evil, encouraging a culture of juxtaposed narcissism and self-loathing coupled by a general dependence on an online world which seems to pervade every interaction. There’s also the definitive corporate nature of most social media platforms, which seems to be forever encroaching on privacy while encouraging a widespread culture of behavioral addiction. As such, I’ve deleted all social media except for Facebook — which is entirely useless about 90 percent of the time.
This isn’t to claim some sort of moral high ground — if anything, moving away from social media has made me even more alienated than my perpetually disorganized, introverted self already is. I’ve also come to the sobering realization that I’m far more charming over Snapchat than in person, prompting some much needed development in social skills.
However, I’ll still acknowledge the fact that social media, especially during quarantine and amidst the BLM protests, has proved to be an incredibly important resource for organizers. The fact is, if you want to reach the younger generation, Instagram stories are far more reliable than flyers.
Besides its ability to create new social webs, social media has also proved fundamental to the Information Age.
The other day, one of my close friends told me that, rather than relying on traditional media outlets, she prefers to look at the world through social media. Apparently, it’s more hopeful. Which, despite my genetically ordained loyalty towards newspapers — which, if I’m being honest, is in part because it makes me feel far more intellectual than I am — makes a lot of sense. In terms of giving you some hope for the future, what’s more effective: A seven second video of kindness amidst a culture of violence and chaos, or a 3,000 word essay on systemic racism? Answers will vary person by person, but for the sole purpose of escapism, one is clearly superior.
Social media presents a conundrum to the average Zoomer — on one hand, the inundation of information we receive from social media is causing us to be more anxious, more withdrawn and more alienated than ever. Yet, without social media, one loses what little agency and connection they have.
In a world faced by torrential violence, our screens are, in many ways, a gateway to the world as we wish to see it. Within the world of Twitter, a premeditated algorithm reshapes the outside world, creating an isolated, utopian bubble. If all I want to see is dirtbag leftist commentary on zodiac signs, then it’s well within my abilities to do so. Such an act would be decidedly unhelpful to my own personal growth and broader knowledge of the world, but possible nonetheless.
Similarly to the contradictions presented by social media’s simultaneously overwhelming and sheltering effects, what’s particularly fascinating about K-pop activism is the friction between fanbases and the industry.
First off, one must establish that despite recent support for BLM, K-pop stans are not a monolithic entity. For every tweet praising, advocating and promoting donations to various social justice causes, there exists another toxic thread of obsessed, overly protective fans targeting tearing each other apart. The industry itself is built on exploitation, and K-pop’s catchy melodies, perfectly in-synch choreography, high production value and seemingly airbrushed performers mask a culture of exploitation and manufacturing that is perfectly representative of an industry inundated by late stage capitalism. Beyond the commodification of human beings into “idols,” K-pop also has a history of cultural appropriation and stereotyping, especially in regards to Black culture. So, it’s interesting that a fanbase built on such a concept would overwhelmingly act out in support of BLM.
Perhaps the real issue is that every news outlet insists on identifying them as “K-pop fans,” which seems to suggest that the entire K-pop fanbase has united in support of Black Lives Matter. Admittedly, this makes for the type of snappy headline which probably convinced you to click on this particular article, so the appeal is understandable. Such claims create a perfect airbrushed vision of Twitter activism: Millions of militant K-pop stans, furiously sending off fancams to police departments across the country to protect the innocent, utilizing social media is a purely good and just manner. Yet, as previously mentioned, that’s not necessarily the case, and especially considering the uncertainty of identities on Twitter, the exact intentions of each stan are shrouded in mystery. In fact, there aren’t even reliable demographic statistics to let us know who these people are.
Rather than unilaterally pronouncing K-pop stans as the staunch defenders of leftist politics, we should all recognize that a new era of internet activism presents a new series of contradictions. How you decide to act on these dilemmas is an entirely personal choice, but know that whatever you choose is part of a much larger picture.
Mira Kudva Driskell is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.