Trolling for a Good Cause
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 02, 2020
Korean pop superfans set the stage for QAnon - then took the spotlight back
Olivia Carville
Even by the standards of U.S. politics in the accursed year 2020, the wall of thrusting digital crotches was weird. One day in June, barely a week after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd and ignited nationwide protests, people started tweeting #WhiteLivesMatter so frequently that it became one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags worldwide. The white supremacist phrase is a call to arms within QAnon, the militant sect that believes God sent President Trump to defeat a shadowy cabal of pedophiles and child traffickers. But the tweets weren’t what they seemed. Anyone who clicked the hashtag or typed it into Twitter’s search bar looking for fellow racists instead found a rolling stream of video clips featuring Korean boy bands, their pelvises gyrating below their smoldering eyes and perfect pastel hair.

More than 22,000 tweets bearing Korean pop stars flooded hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter and #QAnon that evening, according to market researcher Zignal Labs. Some typical accompanying text: “Stan twitter RISE.” The barrage effectively commandeered the hashtag and rendered it all but unusable to white supremacists. QAnon devotees are familiar with this tactic, known as keyword squatting, because they use it all the time. “They got beaten at their own game by Korean pop fans,” says Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher who’s writing a book about QAnon. “I’d never seen anything like it before.”

K-pop stans have. Stan culture takes its name from the titular character in an old Eminem song about a psychotically obsessed fan. Often, stanning means pumping up YouTube view counts on new music videos or voting for a band in numbers high enough to crash whichever website is soliciting votes for an award. Other times, it can cross the line into group harassment of a preferred celeb’s perceived enemies.

When that happens, it can feel to targets like they’re being trolled by QAnon—ask anyone who’s crossed the Beyhive or the Swifties and lived to post about it. K-pop stans, in the years they’ve spent organizing online, have been known to swarm critics who’ve described their favorite genre’s deep debts to Black music as cultural appropriation. They’ve also relentlessly bullied anyone who’s criticized or made lewd comments about their idols online. More conventionally, they’ve overwhelmed the phone lines at hundreds of U.S. radio stations by calling en masse to demand airplay for the latest single by Blackpink or Monsta X.

In the past few months, Trump supporters have started to understand how those radio producers feel. K-pop stans have regularly hijacked QAnon and MAGA social media hashtags. They’ve led get-out-the-vote efforts against the president. And many were among the online pranksters who boasted about helping derail a Trump rally in Tulsa where he’d said 1 million people planned to show up, and barely 6,000 did. It’s tough to know how many of the 13,000 unused seats were meant for stans who’d asked for tickets with no intention of going, but the emptyish stadium infuriated Trump and came to be seen as a turning point in the presidential campaign. While K-pop stans probably won’t swing the election, their trolling is enough of a cultural force that political consultants have taken notice.

The stan activism has been dominated by fans of BTS, the kings of K-pop. The seven-member boy band, also known as Bangtan Sonyeondan (“Bulletproof Boy Scouts”), can cut slightly ridiculous figures with their double denims, platform sneakers, and cotton-candy pink hair. But they’re the first group since the Beatles to release three Billboard-charttopping albums in a year, and they’re also the most tweeted-about band on Earth. Before Covid-19 hit, BTS was selling out U.S. stadiums faster than Taylor Swift. Big Hit Entertainment Co., the group’s management company, made $820 million in an initial public offering on Oct. 14 and is now valued at more than $4 billion. BTS fans call themselves ARMY, which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth. (Clearly, they really wanted to spell ARMY.)

Big Hit markets its straightedge Disney princes extremely carefully. Like most K-pop acts, the members of BTS find their lifestyles and freedom of expression tightly policed—no significant others, no tattoos, no divisive thoughts on politics. (The company also declined to make the band available for comment for this story.) So it was a big deal when, in June, BTS tweeted a brief statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement to its 26 million followers and announced that it had donated $1 million to the cause. “We stand against racial discrimination,” the band said. “We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter.”

To some extent, the band was following the lead of its fans, many of whom were already demanding that ARMY take a stand. Millions of BTS fans live in the U.S. and identify as people of color, according to researchers and surveys of popular fan accounts. Many are over the age of 30, repping Twitter handles like @KpopDad and @MomsNoonas (bio: “Never ever, ever too old to fan-girl”). But ARMY has its share of young people, too. Some professors attribute a recent spike in American college students studying Korean to K-pop fans who want to understand the lyrics of their favorite songs.

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