This article was written in response to the Bloomberg Businessweek article whose title alone (“No One Fights QAnon Like the Global Army of K-Pop Superfans”) ought to have alerted readers that even for 2020, the forthcoming arguments would be ludicrous (a war between white American anti-pedophilia conspiracy theorists and fans of Korean pop music? Come now).
But before we debunk the claim that the “Kpop stans” have been successfully “trolling” the Right, let us first quickly review who the Kpop stans in question are, why Western Media outlets have decided only now to pay attention to a seven year old faction, and why you should care about their political motivations (or lack thereof).
Of all of the Korean pop stars, without question, BTS has the most recognition among the American general public. If you have Internet access, you are almost certainly already aware of BTS. You may even mistakenly think that BTS and Kpop are synonymous terms.
Not that you actually care much. And why should you? Okay, maybe you have heard that the BTS ARMY (the band’s fanbase) are older than the typical teenage boy band fan, and yeah, you hear they give to charity every now and again, but why should you care about fans of a boyband, age aside? There’s a plague running rampant, economic hardships have crippled nearly every nation, right-wing populism is gaining traction in the developed world, Armenia and Azerbaijan are at war, Nigerians are being killed by their government, and an entire generation of Yemeni children may be lost to hunger.
Surely, other things matter.
And indeed, there are infinite issues in the world that matter. But it is worth noting that if BTS fans total 30 million globally, there are more people who love BTS than who live in either Portugal, Chile, Nepal, Iceland, the Maldives, Australia, Sri Lanka, or Azerbaijan. When 30 million people decide to do something as one, the effects of their collective action will reverberate throughout the world.
Many of the world records ARMY have amassed in the past seven years have been digital in nature and related to social media: most used hashtag in 24 hours, fastest to reach 10 million views on a Youtube video, etc. These days, the BTS fandom is so large, and their online presence so concentrated on Twitter, that whenever the fandom is having a conversation (e.g. about hair or coloring paper) they can accidentally get a keyword or hashtag to occupy one (or several) of the coveted 30 spots on the Twitter WorldWide Trends.
Perhaps the ease of describing ARMY as an online phenomenon is too tempting for the unaware journalist — fits too easily into the myriad of other stereotypes about boyband fans— that nearly every expository article circa 2017–2019 has written off the BTS fandom as such.
But to ignore the real-world impact of the BTS movement would ignore real-world reality that 30 million people around the world have helped to create. Around the world, fans have been organizing charity events as birthday presents for each BTS member, planting trees, donating to orphanages, volunteering in senior homes, organizing blood drives, etc., all in the name of BTS (or the specific member whose birthday it is). In the course of just seven years, ARMY have propelled the seven members of BTS from a rented studio in Seoul to the #1 on the Hot100 for 3+ weeks. With ARMY behind them, the dancing septet have contributed the equivalent of 4.7 billion US dollars to the Korean economy.
Sometimes, the BTS ARMY’s digital supremacy and its physical world impacts coordinate. When protests for racial justice erupted across the US over the summer, the Dallas Police Department created an app to submit videos of vandalism and other violence during the protests. Many Kpop fans, including members of the BTS ARMY, personally believed in the cause the protesters were fighting for, and saw the app as a way to frame peaceful protesters. To protect the protesters, Kpop fans (and eventually other netizens inspired by what they saw) uploaded so many short clips of different Korean pop star performances (known as “fancams”) that the Police Department temporarily took down the app.
When white supremacists saw the uptick in the use of “#BlackLivesMatter” on social media, they began trending hashtags of their own (#WhiteLivesMatter, #WWG1WWGA, etc). These hashtags too, were quickly utilized primarily by different Kpop fan groups (including the BTS ARMY) who again used their fancams and memes to drown out the racially charged content, much to the surprise of one John Oliver.
In the same two weeks, it was also revealed that BTS had quietly donated one million US dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake George Floyd’s murder (some time before June 4th, 2020). ARMY responded by raising an additional million dollars for Black Lives Matter, with the rallying cry #MatchtheMillion. The million dollar goal was reached in 24 hours, taking the American media off guard, as no other prominent US celebrity had donated nearly so much money to the urgent cause, let alone a grass-roots effort of those from around the world.
June 20, 2020 was the date for the US president’s first major in-person campaign rally since the terms “in-person” and “social distancing” entered the vernacular. The rally initially gained national attention because of the racially charged original date and location (Tulsa and Juneteenth). Out of the one million people the campaign said they were expecting, only 6,200 showed. The campaign manager was demoted. The mainstream media hopped on the story of the failed rally, while right-leaning media initially covered the low attendance with a story of Antifa protesters blocking streets near the rally (despite no evidence supporting this).
On TikTok, a video circulated of an American asking TikTok users to request tickets for the rally and then not attend. The video had enormous reach on TikTok and was reposted on Twitter where it circulated somewhat in Kpop fan spaces. To anyone who has studied the Twitter (Kpop fans’ app of choice) movements of different Kpop fans, it is obvious that the majority of Kpop fans (who do not live in the US) were unaware of the TikTok user’s call to action. Had the Kpop fans known, especially the fans of BTS, there would have been a corresponding hashtag (#RallyTix) or coded phrase (Orange gathering) trending Worldwide (or at the very least trending in the US) on Twitter. No such hashtag or keyword existed.
The most likely explanation for the sparsely attended rally is that netizens of all kinds, choosing to act as individuals rather than rally their respective online communities, ordered tickets and then continued to quarantine in their homes.
While it is impossible to note how many of the requested and unused tickets belonged to netizens who had no intention of attending, media outlets on both sides of the political divide leaned in and painted the entire scenario as an epic prank by the Kpop fans against the largely unpopular leader of the free world. Fox News attributed the mass request of tickets to “TikTok users and fans of the group Kpop” (there is no band called “Kpop,” rather Kpop refers to the Korean pop music industry the way “Hollywood” refers to the American film industry; such is Fox News’ extensive journalistic prowess). In a televised interview with the Korean boy band called Tomorrow by Together, the interviewer asked the Seoul-based artists if they had known about American netizens’ efforts to disrupt the rally, as if the 5 Korean boys (3 of them minors) had put their fans (not very numerous in the US compared with other Korean pop acts) up to the task. The polite boys diplomatically bowed out of the question, but the damage was already done.
In the eyes of the casual American news consumer, the Kpop stans are mainly liberal, mainly young, mainly TikTok users, and have no qualms inserting themselves into American politics.
AOC praised the Kpop fans, calling them “allies.” The right took to the internet to scream about foreign interference in US elections (as if the English speaking fans of BTS and other Korean acts were not US citizens acting within their own sovereign borders).
Queue the slew of articles, continuing to be released four months after the summer events occurred, with right leaning articles taking BTS and ARMY’s names to paint the “Kpop community” as a liberal online cult who worship plastic Korean “straight-edge Disney princes” and enjoy trolling for liberal purposes, and with left leaning articles painting BTS and ARMY and associated other Kpop fans as an example of the uprising of youth that will save the country.
Unfortunately, neither side is correct. Kpop fans, the BTS ARMY in particular, are the furthest thing from a cult this side of Jonestown. And while there are probably at least one million BTS ARMY in the US, the other 29 million fans live outside the US. To think that the Kpop fans have any meaningful stake in or understanding of the politics of a country that they do not reside in is at best wildly optimistic and at worst grossly US-centric in an increasingly globalized world.
While these articles continue to be written, both the Kpop fans and the BTS ARMY have moved on. Several Kpop acts have released music since June (including but not limited to Mamamoo’s “Wanna Be Myself,” Tomorrow By Together’s “Blue Hour,” and Jackson Wang’s “Pretty Please”). Not only did BTS member Suga release a solo-mixtape and feature on MAX’s Blueberry Eyes, BTS members Suga, J-Hope, and Jungkook featured on Jason Derulo’s Savage Love (taking that to #1 on the Hot100 as well). BTS also released the chart-topping “Dynamite,” while hosting two online concerts and having a week-long residency on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. In short, the Kpop fans, the BTS ARMY in particular, have been busy.
When not busy being fans, the major causes ARMY and others have taken up have been, like BLM, fueled by circumstantial necessity, and by virtue of there being a pandemic, largely focused on raising money and/or awareness to go to where locals say the money can be best utilized:
In July, Indian fans raised $8K for flood relief in the Assam region. In August, BTS ARMY were among the first to circulate news of the blast in Beirut; they also warned against donating money (citing corruption), encouraged those who were able to do so to donate blood, and circulated photos of missing individuals in hopes that they could be found. More recently, fans in Nigeria have been educating ARMY around the world about the situation with SARS, and in response, ARMY have been flooding UN emails and phone lines begging for assistance on behalf of their Nigerian siblings.
It would be wrong to say that the BTS ARMY, or indeed any Kpop fan, has any stake in Nigerian politics because they are asking SARS to stop murdering people. Similarly, it would be wrong to say that the BTS ARMY have any stake in US politics because a few members once tried to prevent a gathering of unmasked individuals in the middle of a pandemic.
There is no liberal Kpop online movement to save the US from QANON, white supremacy, or the Republican party. The best way to describe BTS ARMY’s actions is humanitarian activism without politics. ARMY support the UN’s campaign to End Violence in all forms. ARMY support movements that ask for innocent people to stop being killed. ARMY see holes in their communities and use BTS’ name online as a beacon to call other equally passionate people nearby to come help them remedy it, the way Gotham uses the bat signal to call Batman.
The only “Kpop-driven” movement that exists is the BTS movement, which is aimed at pushing BTS to the highest level of success by ending xenophobia, ending violence, and promoting self-love among its followers. Everything else the ARMY has done in the past has been a moment in their seven-year life, not a movement, and certainly not the endgame.
To anyone who wishes that the Kpop fans’ organization (looking at you Hank Green and George Takei) could be better utilized for their political purposes, keep wishing. Not even the label companies that these Kpop artists have signed under can control the fans’ actions. To instigate violent right-wing groups like the Proud Boys or QANON to hate BTS and their primarily POC female fans is exceedingly cruel and would only serve to lessen the charitable impacts ARMY has been able to undertake. It also inadvertently silences and invalidates the right-leaning members of the BTS ARMY (of which there are MANY).
So no, Olivia. The Kpop stans aren’t fighting QANON and they aren’t going to save you from the current reality any more than the Electoral College saved you, Robert Muller saved you, the Impeachment proceedings saved you, or the Election of 2020 will necessarily save you. Look somewhere else for hope.