Because K-pop fans are spread across the world, many of them are seriously interested in global politics. Sometimes they champion causes that are outwardly goofy—as when BTS fans threatened to sue Ivanka Trump for using the hashtag “BTS” in the caption of a photo from the White House. But in December, the Chilean government identified K-pop fandom as one of the more powerful forces driving human-rights protests across the country; in 2018, BTS fans supported student protests in Bangladesh.
“[These] are people who are used to tuning into developments in another part of the world and coordinating in response to events there,” says Miranda Ruth Larsen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Tokyo who studies K-pop.
With all this speed and enthusiasm, these fans look like a united front—but that isn’t exactly true. K-pop fans have a long and complicated history with cultural appropriation and antiblack racism. “While, yes, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, within the fandom there has been pushback,” says Zina, a 29-year-old K-pop-fandom critic and blogger from South Florida who asked to be identified only by her first name for professional reasons.
Some of their actions have been less considered and effective than others—flooding #WhiteLivesMatter with K-pop videos just ended up pushing it into Twitter’s Trending Topics sidebar. “You [go on the site and] see ‘Trending in K-Pop: White Lives Matter,’” Zina told me. “As a black fan who’s seen over the years that anti-blackness is literally everywhere, including in fandom spaces, the first thought [when you see that] isn’t Oh yes, these are my peers tweeting to mess up this tag, it’s Oh shit, what just happened.”
But tactics can be tweaked, and the spontaneity of the effort is still exciting: Much of this activism is led by black fans, and its happening even without any catalyst from the K-pop stars who are the reason for the fandom in the first place, Zina said. Many popular K-pop groups and artists have yet to say anything at all about the protests, and others waited a long time. On Thursday—nearly a week after the protests spread across the country—an official BTS Twitter account shared a supportive statement. And on Saturday, the group and its label Big Hit Entertainment revealed a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter.
“The fandom has been moving, the fandom has been donating, the fans have been protesting,” Zina said. “Then the groups have shown support. The fandom paved the way for the groups.”
At this point, fans don’t really need celebrities to speak for them.
Fandoms have trained themselves for years to understand how attention works on social media and how to funnel it to things they care about. They easily can reach millions of people in a day—albeit with slightly more complicated methods than a major pop group like BTS, which can speak to all of its 26 million followers at once—and they know it.