On June 20, US president Donald Trump delivered a campaign rally in front of just 6,200 people. The stadium, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, carries 19,000, and so was notably empty, with row upon row of blue unoccupied seats; a second stadium booked up nearby for overflow went unused. Trump’s campaign had bragged that more than a million people had registered to attend. A large internet group has laid claim to ruining Trump’s big day—K-pop stans.
A K-pop stan is simply an enthusiastic and active fan of Korean pop music (stan means ardent fan)—often you’ll see them on Twitter with their picture changed to one of their heroes. The Tulsa debacle is not their first involvement in American politics. In May, K-pop-stanning Twitter accounts hijacked the white supremacist #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag, flooding it with K-pop videos. In June, they crashed the Dallas Police Department app with thousands of fancams, short clips of Korean idols or groups performing live. Earlier this month, when the Trump campaign asked users to wish the president happy birthday on Twitter, they flooded the replies with rude messages.
The most recent prank was a collaboration with Gen Z TikTokers. A woman named Mary Jo Laupp encouraged her followers to sign up for Trump’s rally, then not attend. Later, another user requested that K-pop stans get involved.
Ria, who is 16, based in the US, and whose favorite K-pop group is the boyband BTS, heard about the plan to prank Trump from other K-pop fans on Twitter, though she was aware that the idea was circling on TikTok, too. “In these types of projects there’s never a leader, everyone just spreads the message. And since there are millions of us it’s very easy to get something trending,” she says. “We also tried to keep it low-key—as you can see, nobody saw us coming until the actual event took place and all of the tweets and TikToks were found by the media.”
Registering was easy: Trump’s campaign was giving away two free tickets per registered phone. “I used my phone number and my parents’ phone number, I actually told them everything that was going on and they loved it,” she says.
John Lie, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, says that K-pop emerged as “export-oriented” popular music in the mid-1990s. It explicitly relied on the internet and social media and the cultivation of fandom. Most people outside of South Korea had their first encounter with K-pop when Psy’s "Gangnam Style" music video was released on YouTube in 2012. “In North America and Europe, it was in the late 2000s when K-pop fan bases emerged,” says Haekyung Um, a senior lecturer in music at University of Liverpool. “And these fans were members of online discussion groups, forums and chat rooms of Asian popular music who communicated with each other sharing and exchanging their musical interests and knowledge of K-pop.”
K-pop fan groups are large, active, and growing—#KpopTwitter was included in 6.1 billion Tweets in 2019, 15 percent higher than 2018, with Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, and the United States making up the top four countries. BTS member Jungkook’s video of him dancing to Billie Eilish’s "Bad Guy" became the most retweeted post on the platform in 2019.
These fans are international, explains Richard Williams, a lecturer in ethnomusicology at SOAS University of London, and have been engaging with each other online for years. Their shared obsession with K-pop idols makes it easy for them to mobilize. “There’s a long history of this community creating a safe online space for themselves, one where they can set up their own rules,” says Williams. “It’s a shared community, a shared space online—some scholars call it an affinity space, this idea of a space where you have a very, very intimate affinity with people around the world.”
That K-pop stans are adept at being heard online is no surprise—digital literacy is essential for K-pop artists and their fans across the globe. “Above all, K-pop has achieved its global prominence thanks to digital technology,” says Um. “K-pop’s success also owes a lot to Western-based social media.”
Their activism hasn’t been limited to America, either. In 2016, Taiwan-born singer Tzuyu released a video through her record label in which she apologized to her Chinese fanbase for waving a Taiwanese flag on Korean television. (China regards Taiwan as a Chinese province rather than an independent state.) The website of the label, believed to have forced Tzuyu to apologize against her will, was taken down in a DDoS attack, in which Williams believes K-pop stans played a role.
This pivot to wokeness, however, is in some senses unexpected. One of the original attractions of K-pop, Williams says, is that it was apolitical, fantastical, and removed from people’s home politics and American hegemony. Some of the community’s racial politics have also been unsavory. “There is a long history of American black music influencing K-pop. But it’s not so clear-cut. I mean, a lot of black K-pop fans get racially harassed,” he says.
Yet the K-pop community also has a sizable LGBT and minority following. “The K-pop community is very woke, which means it’s very open and educated on social and political problems, and the K-pop community is very diverse, we have people of all nationalities, people of all ages, there are millions of people from the LGBTQ+ community, we have POCs, Asian people, Hispanic people, Indian people," says Ria.
With this demographic, Trump would seem like a natural enemy. “We have all the people Trump doesn’t like. It’s not that we prefer Joe Biden, it’s that we want Trump out.”
In some sense, K-pop’s appropriation of black music may also have motivated the move. Though K-pop artists are mostly resolutely nonpolitical, says Lie, BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, which the BTS ARMY (BTS fan group) was able to match within 24 hours. “So there’s a sense of ‘giving back,’ but the more important ideological source is anti-racism,” he says.
K-pop stans also want to spread a good image for the groups in the genre. “They have always been well organized and highly motivated to promote their artists, for example by voting for their fans to win awards, sending their song requests for K-pop artists to the local radios, making their demands for K-pop CDs and merchandise to the local music retailers,” says Um. “One of the significant K-pop fan activities is fund-raising campaigns for various occasions, for example Chinese fans of BTS raised 2.25 million yuan for the BTS member V’s birthday, with the progress of online collection presented on their fan site.”
But it would be wrong to see the group as monolithic—it is a disparate, international group, with different motivations. “K-pop fans engaged in Black Lives Matter-related activities and groups are predominantly based in the US and Trump’s anti-immigration attitudes surely grate, as well as his insensitivity toward Black Lives Matter related issues,” says Lie.
This active faction likely makes up a small part of a worldwide group who listen to K-pop to escape politics, not engage with it. “Both K-pop and K-pop fans are cosmopolitan in the sense that they embrace multicultural, global, and transnational flows and influences,” says Um. “But at the same time, K-pop fans are not a homogeneous group by any means. While sharing their interests and passion for their music and artists, K-pop communities across the globe are also very locally situated and specific.”
As for Ria, she plans to engage in more online activism and thinks K-pop stans will continue, too. “People just see us as teenagers with a lot of time on their hands but what we can do with all that time is things like we did at Trump’s rally,” she says. “We are people and we are affected by his decisions – we aren’t just K-pop stans, we’re humans before we’re fans, and if we have the platform and the numbers to try to make a change then we’ll do it.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.