SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Until last week, if you clicked the hashtag #whitelivesmatter on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, you’d find a smattering of right-wing posts by those opposed to the wave of global protests against racism and police brutality.
But follow that hashtag now, and you’re likely to find something much different: random, fan-created videos of South Korean pop music stars.
Over the past week, K-Pop fans around the world have commandeered the #whitelivesmatter hashtag, as well as #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter, as a way to drown out racist posts that have also used those labels.
It’s not just hashtags. When the Dallas, Texas police department set up a mobile app for users to submit videos of “illegal activity” from the protests, K-Pop fans quickly overwhelmed the site with tributes to their favorite stars, forcing the police department to take it down because of “technical difficulties.”
The online disruption, combined with the millions of dollars donated by K-Pop celebrities and their followers to Black Lives Matter causes, underscores how international fans of Korean music have emerged as a formidable organizing force for social causes around the world.
“Their ability to massively coordinate action is just unparalleled. I'm serious when I say they are the most potent online force in the world right now,” says TK Park, who has written about Korean pop culture and runs the “Ask A Korean!” blog.
It may seem random, but the closer you look the more sense it makes. K-Pop has become a global phenomenon, with massive fan bases in every part of the world. In the United States, many of those fans are African Americans.
As Park points out, K-Pop fans everywhere are very skilled at massive online campaigns with very specific goals. Usually, that means coordinated efforts by fans to push certain songs or videos up the music charts by streaming them obsessively or posting about the content on social media.
“These groups of fans have accumulated a lot of [organizing] experience while supporting their idols,” says Hong Seok-kyeong, a communications professor at Seoul National University. “It requires a great deal of logic and strategy, like setting a timeline or choosing a channel.”
But K-Pop fans are increasingly aiming their grassroots organizational powers at charitable and other causes, such as raising money to help provide medical supplies to Syrian refugees, give meals to at-risk children in Rwanda, or rescue animals in India.
One in an ARMY (OIAA), an online collective of fans of the wildly popular boy band BTS, says it raised over $250,000 for charities in 2019.
But those efforts have been turbo-charged with the reemergence of Black Lives Matter protests, which were spurred by the most recent police killings of African Americans.
After BTS on Sunday donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter organization, the group’s fans, known collectively as the “ARMY,” matched that donation within 24 hours, according to the OIAA website — a stunning display of online fundraising ability.
우리는 인종차별에 반대합니다.— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) June 4, 2020
우리는 폭력에 반대합니다.
나, 당신, 우리 모두는 존중받을 권리가 있습니다. 함께 하겠습니다.
We stand against racial discrimination.
We condemn violence.
You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together.#BlackLivesMatter
“We’re happy to help ARMY organize and support the Black Lives Matter movement,” said an OIAA spokesperson. “We stand in solidarity with black ARMY. They’re an important part of our family. And we stand with black people everywhere. Your voices deserve to be heard.”
It’s not the first time K-Pop fans have influenced international politics.
In 2019, Korean music fans in Chile were partly responsible for a series of protests calling for more social and economic equality, a report by the country’s interior ministry concluded.
During those protests, K-pop fans criticized alleged human rights violations by the Chilean police force, according to a report by CNN Chile.
But why are K-Pop fans more politically active, especially on explicitly progressive causes, than fans of other types of music? After all, most K-Pop songs aren’t particularly political, at least no more than the music of any other country.
The answer, according to Park, may be that K-Pop seems to have a special appeal to racial minorities and immigrants across the world — groups that don’t necessarily see themselves reflected in white-dominated western pop culture.
In the United States, Asian-Americans and then African Americans were among the first to embrace Korean music, Park says. He notes there has been a similar trend in Europe.
It’s possible, he speculates, that K-Pop is “essentially serving as a pop culture conduit connecting the marginalized around the world.”
It could be “the pop culture representation of Third Worldism,” he says, referring to the diplomatic stance of non-aligned countries during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
The explanation may not be all-encompassing. After all, not all Korean music fans are marginalized or even minorities.
But whatever is behind the activism, one thing is certain: the organization of K-pop fans is organic, with both the strategies and targets developing naturally online.
“This collective action takes place as voluntary support, not a top-down order,” says Professor Hong. “They learn from themselves, by themselves.”
While some K-Pop fans have at times been accused of cyber bullying, groups like OIAA are now trying to harness the community's collective power to accomplish "global good,” the group’s website says.
To do that, the collective selects a different non-profit group every month to which it directs fan contributions.
“Many people giving small amounts,” it says, “can create a substantial impact when we work together.”
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.