How K-pop fans are wielding their organizing power against Donald Trump

June 22, 2020, 1:21 PM UTC

The fan base of Korean pop music, or K-pop, now seems fully enmeshed in U.S. politics.

K-pop fans claim they played a part in tricking President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign into overestimating the expected crowd size at the President’s Saturday rally in Tulsa, his first in months.

Campaign manager Brad Parscale said last Monday that over 1 million people had registered for tickets to the rally. When the event got underway at the Bank of Oklahoma Center on Saturday, some 6,200 attendees showed up, filling roughly a third of the stadium’s 19,000 seats. The smaller-than-expected crowd forced the campaign to cancel the President’s planned appearance at a second, outdoor site that was intended to handle stadium overflow. The low turnout reportedly angered the President, who cares deeply about optics.

Meanwhile, K-pop fans, alongside users of social media platform TikTok, were elated. They say they followed a strategy crafted by a Democratic activist in Iowa, also known as TikTok Grandma. In a viral post on June 11, she called on users to go to Trump’s campaign website, register for two free rally tickets using a phone number, and then not show up on Saturday.

“I’m dead serious when I say this. The teens of America have struck a savage blow against @realDonaldTrump,” Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist who left the party in 2018, tweeted on Sunday. “All across America teens ordered tickets to this event.”

Parscale denied the fans’ assertion, accusing the groups of not understanding “how our rallies work.”

“Phony ticket requests never factor into our thinking,” he said.

Regardless of K-pop fans’ actual role in the turnout at Trump’s rally, the massive community wields enormous online clout, and, increasingly, it’s directing it at progressive causes in the U.S.

Recent actions

The faux ticket-buying campaign is only the most recent example of K-pop fans deploying their online power for activism.

In late May, just as protests against police brutality spread across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the Dallas Police Department tweeted out a call for videos that showcased illegal acts occurring during Dallas protests. The request prompted “K-pop stans” to flood the police department’s Twitter feed and app with fancams, or short performance videos, unrelated to the protests. A day later, the Dallas Police Department shut down its app due to “technical difficulties.”

On June 3, when K-pop fans spotted anti-protest hashtags like #bluelivesmatter trending on Twitter, they again deployed fancams en masse, seeking to drown out the often racist posts associated with the hashtags.

On June 4, K-pop fans received a more formal call to action when the genre’s most popular band, BTS, tweeted support of protests against racial inequality in the U.S. “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter,” the group wrote to its 26 million followers.

Two days later, BTS announced a $1 million donation to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, which seeks to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities.” Within hours of BTS’s announcement, the group’s fan base—known as ARMY—had raised an additional $1 million to match the boy band’s donation.

In the wake of the donations, a group of fans called One in an ARMY said that the link between BTS fans and the Black Lives Matter movement is “unsurprising” given the diversity of BTS’s ARMY and its “strong desire to help others.” The group of fans says it organizes monthly, grass-roots fundraising campaigns for nonprofits worldwide under the philosophy that “many people giving small amounts can create a substantial impact when we work together.”

The strength of the ARMY

K-pop fans’ recent string of flashy online activism and fundraising amid the U.S.’s reckoning with racism fits into the community’s long history of online organizing for social justice causes, industry observers say.

In recent years, K-pop fans—who number in the tens of millions, if artists’ social media followings are any indicationhave organized to fund projects ranging from supporting LGBTQ+ youth centers in South Korea, to raising money to build wells in Cambodia, to soliciting financial support for major international nonprofits like Feed the Children.

Last December, K-pop fans even drew the ire of Chilean government officials, who claimed the community stoked anti-government unrest. But beyond supportive social media posts, there is little evidence K-pop fans played any role in organizing physical protests. K-pop fans, however, did respond to the allegations with mocking memes.

K-pop’s targeting of Trump’s rally on Saturday rally was likely related to Trump’s opposition to the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, causes the community has supported in recent weeks.

Ultimately, the fans’ ability to organize rapidly may be rooted in their fandom itself. They’ve deployed similar skills—tracking down tickets, rigging top-played music charts, connecting with like-minded devotees on social media—in support of their favorite bands and artists. The techniques translate well to online activism and organizing, Hong Seok-kyeong, a communications professor at Seoul National University, told the Voice of America.

“These groups of fans have accumulated a lot of [organizing] experience while supporting their idols,” Hong said. “It requires a great deal of logic and strategy.”