What the K-Pop Stan Stories Are Missing

We can't overlook the fandom's troubling, complicated relationship with race.

Over the past month, multiple publications have credited diehard fans of Korean pop music, also known as K-pop stans, with leading various online campaigns that either screwed with cops or supported Black Lives Matter.

K-pop stans were credited with crashing police snitch apps of several departments. They were credited with flooding the #WhiteLivesMatter Twitter results with “fancam” edited fan videos. After K-pop superstars BTS made a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter groups, their stans reportedly matched it.

Now, most infamously, K-pop stans have been credited, along with TikTok teens, with tanking Donald Trump’s recent Oklahoma rally by RSVPing online in huge numbers, thus fueling overblown crowd size estimates that went wildly unmet.

From the New York Times, “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally,” reported the day after Trump’s rally:

“It spread mostly through Alt TikTok — we kept it on the quiet side where people do pranks and a lot of activism,” said the YouTuber Elijah Daniel, 26, who participated in the social media campaign. “K-pop Twitter and Alt TikTok have a good alliance where they spread information amongst each other very quickly. They all know the algorithms and how they can boost videos to get where they want.”

And from CNN, “Trump's campaign was trolled by TikTok users in Tulsa,” also reported the following day:

One video, with more than a quarter of a million views, called on fans of South Korean pop music in particular to join the trolling campaign. Fans of the music, which is known as K-pop, are a force on social media -- they posted over 6 billion tweets last year alone. And they have a history of taking action for social justice causes.

The weeks of coverage of K-pop stans and their online efforts would have any reasonable media consumer thinking that the internet’s most fervent fan armies are putting aside their allegiances to fight for Black lives. This is evident in the praise they’ve received online as a result.

But, as is the reality with many internet trend stories, these organized efforts are far more complicated than reporting outlets allege. That’s because the K-pop community, just like tons of other communities, struggles with racism and anti-Blackness, an issue further perpetuated by toxic stan culture and the cultural appropriation of Black style and music in K-pop.

In their haste to blog fun stories about K-pop fans pulling a fast one on Trump, outlets like CNN and the Times seem to have overlooked the fact that, even as stans are mobilizing for good causes, some of them are also using that fight as way to bully each other and even the K-pop idols they adore — not because they care about Black people, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or police brutality, but because fighting racism is another metric they can use to judge and harass each other.

One of the reporters who is putting in the work is MIT Technology review writer Abby Ohlheiser, who captured a more nuanced understanding of K-pop stan culture more than two weeks before the Trump rally. In her piece “How K-pop fans became celebrated online vigilantes,” Ohlheiser dismantled the idea that K-pop fans are surprisingly politically engaged, and explored the problematic culture within the K-pop community:

But some stans, and the academics who study them, say that while it’s great to see fans use these platforms for good, the rapid veneration is overshadowing the more complex dynamics underlying K-pop fandom. And, they say, the newfound reputation for anti-racist heroism largely ignores the voices of black K-pop fans, who have struggled with racism and harassment within the community.

“For a lot of black fans, including myself, to see white K-pop fans get praised and credited in the media for anti-racist activism, while black fans have faced (and will continue to face) anti-black harassment online for spearheading these conversations, feels like a punch in the gut—that we are being used for our social currency and then discarded,” [Keidra Chaney, a culture writer and publisher of The Learned Fangirl,] says.

Teen Vogue, a longtime outlet for beyond-the-mainstream journalism that has given space to Black K-pop experts to unpack these complicated experiences within the fandom, has also been great on this issue. In a piece titled “Why K-Pop Stars Must Keep Speaking Up About Supporting Black Lives Matter,” writer Natasha Mulenga writes about her experience with K-Pop’s racist history of capitalizing on Black culture (emphasis mine):

It’s not easy being Black and being a K-pop fan. K-pop stans and Black Lives Matter have often been used in the same sentence this week, as fans smother police surveillance apps and take over racist hashtags with fancams. Simultaneously, Black K-pop fans have been gaslit by members of their own fandoms when they dare to raise real concerns. That’s caused a lot of dedicated Black fans to leave fandoms or fade into the background. It’s not easy to enjoy a space that is unwelcoming.

[…]

Traditionally, K-pop has not been a space that has validated Black feelings about those choices, despite the impact Blackness has had on an industry that was reported at $5.4 billion even back in 2018, according to a report released by the Korea Creative Content Agency and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. On numerous occasions, Black fans have called out Korean artists who have engaged in acts that are hurtful and harmful to the Black people, such as performing in blackface, saying the “n-word,’” and appropriating cultural hairstyles. These actions are often met with silence, defensive posts from the idols themselves, or bare-minimum apologies.

Part of the context these mainstream stories have missed are the fractures within K-pop standom over racism — the various ways that stans defend their idols, attack others, and undermine concerns raised by Black fans.

Earlier this month, Teen Vogue covered an example of these fractures in a reported piece on a racist incident by Suga, a member of BTS. The artist, also known as Agust D, had sampled a 1977 speech by Jim Jones — yes, the one you’re thinking of — in a track on a new mixtape. Fans reacted by demanding that he remove the track, as a majority of Jones’ victims at Jonestown were Black, but others attacked fans who were making such demands.

From reporter Claire H. Evans, emphasis mine:

Some expressed their hurt and disappointment at the choice and asked for clarification from Suga. Others defended the use of the sample, theorizing the rapper’s intentions and arguing that Suga did not need to justify his artistic choices. In the latter group, some fans argued that those who criticized the track and/or trended hashtags asking for an explanation from Suga weren’t “true” and loyal fans.

[…]

Many of those who voiced concerns were dismissed as haters, or “antis” bent on BTS’s demise; their concerns were disregarded. Black fans existed across the groups with a variety of viewpoints, but their opinions were often used in isolation to support the points of non-Black fans, creating a monolith effect in which Black fans were subjugated to being critical of the sample or not. The dynamic became less about listening and more about self-righteousness — either Black people should feel a certain way, or because individual Black fans didn’t, Suga had made no kind of mistake and thus shouldn’t be called out.

It would have been good to see some of this nuance make it into the post-Trump rally coverage from high-profile outlets, but much of the coverage missed the mark. Some even pointed to K-pop stan culture as a system easily adaptable to activism within the Black Lives Matter movement.

Another piece in the Times, “Why Obsessive K-Pop Fans Are Turning Toward Political Activism,” almost gets it, quoting different experts on the ways that stans weaponize the internet for their benefit.

However, it doesn’t go so far as to explore the issues raised in Evans’ Teen Vogue piece — that K-pop’s campaigns are rooted in a culture that weaponizes critiques of idols and fellow fans as a way to delegitimize the fans and idols themselves, with little regard for the substance of the actual critique. From the Times piece, emphasis mine:

… “K-pop fans learned how to organize through their fandom,” [author T.K.] Park said. “K-pop is a digital-native music,” he added, and South Korea’s early adoption of nationwide broadband service “made Korean pop music respond to the demands of the internet, and also made K-pop’s fandom the most sophisticated actors in the digital sphere.” He pointed to the near-constant campaigns to flood radio stations with song requests or sell out concert tickets in a matter of minutes as a training ground: “All of these activities can be translated into politics very easily.”

[…]

“Sometimes they don’t even mean to trend, but there’s so many of them that sometimes they accidentally trend random words,” [Nicole Santero, a fan and Ph.D. student with a focus on the BTS Army], said. “They’re really, really passionate people who just fight for what they love. Those characteristics translate well when you look at social issues.”

Yes, absolutely, K-Pop stans have untethered power online, where they can effortlessly conjure online campaigns for their idols. But their political power is deeply rooted in the ways they go about harnessing this power online, too. Just as BTS fans fought over whether criticizing Suga for sampling Jones made them genuine fans, K-pop stans have begun fighting over whether fighting racism makes them genuine fans, and using anti-racist arguments as a means to harass one another and elevate their idol’s reputation.

This is one of the things that my friend Shannon (who is going by her first name to avoid retaliation), a huge K-pop fan, most passionately expressed when I asked her about her own experience with racism and K-pop stans. “It is absolutely exhausting to be a Black K-pop fan. People on the outside have no idea,” Shannon told me online. “Obviously there are good K-pop stans! A lot of people I follow are non-Black allies and I appreciate them a lot! But there is definitely a disconnect from reality.”

Shannon said she has witnessed stans continually defend idols accused of not doing enough, arguing that they don’t owe Black K-pop fans anything, and claiming that idols have probably donated to Black-led organizations but don’t want to publicize their efforts. Or, she said, stans take issue with the way that Black fans are demanding solidarity from K-pop idols, language policing and criticizing them for not asking nicely. Or they throw instances of an idol’s racism in each others’ faces in order to bash the fandom and elevate themselves. Of course, this isn’t an argument Shannon wants to wage with teenagers online, but as an adult fan she said she still feels some responsibility in educating kids who don’t get it yet.

“It also gets annoying because there are some people that’ll donate to Black Lives Matter and then be like ‘I donated so STFU, I ‘care’ but I don’t like how you’re talking about things!!!’ Like then you don’t care... because you don’t actually have any empathy for Black people... your donation is hollow,” Shannon told me. “And then when an idol finally posts they’ll be like “Are you happy now????” Like no. No the fuck I’m not happy, people are still dying, are you FUCKING SERIOUS!!???!!”

“Basically a lot goes on in the fandom surrounding Black people,” she continued, “like using us as a reason to be mean to other people. Like I said about the fan wars earlier. So many people want to use our pain as a way to boost their superiority complex. ‘My idol donated THIS MUCH! I stan the right group!!’”

Perspectives including Shannon’s and Evans’ and Mulenga’s are missing from too many mainstream stories that champion K-pop stans. Stories that interpret and communicate these nuances require difficult, time-intensive reporting, and a serious but critical treatment of K-pop as a culture and Gen Z as a generation. They also require hiring writers like Evans and Mulenga, who have the background to call bullshit.

To be clear, the efforts of the K-pop community to mischaracterize Trump’s projected rally attendance were a net benefit — not just because they made him look like a fool, but because these inflated numbers forced potential attendees to rethink whether they wanted to stand in such a large a crowd during a pandemic. But these K-pop stan narratives are misconstruing the fandom’s relationship with racism, and are being used as a reprieve from hard news in mainstream media coverage of the protests against police brutality. It’s easier to make it seem like disaffected teens are on the frontlines of this movement instead of taking the people who are on the frontlines seriously. Meanwhile, the police and prison abolitionists doing this work are unlikely to receive the same lighthearted, viral coverage that’s currently overshadowing them.

Photo via mduangdara/Flickr; Remix by Samantha Grasso