Ahead of his Saturday night rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump boasted that he had roughly 1 million attendance confirmations. But when the arena didn’t even reach its 19,000-person capacity, many people online were quick to give K-pop fans and TikTok users at least a partial credit for the low turnout.
It’s unclear what role the social media campaign, or K-pop fans, had in the low turnout. Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale told CNN on Sunday that “leftists and online trolls” who thought they had affected attendance at the rally “don’t know what our rallies are talking about or how our rallies work.” He added that the false numbers had been removed and said that “these false ticket requests never influence our thinking.”
But the fact that K-pop fans may have been involved shouldn’t come as a surprise – it’s part of a long history of social activism and online devotee-led charity work.
Why do K-pop fandoms become activists?
To the uninitiated, good causes and K-pop may seem like an unlikely marriage.
But K-pop fans have been doing a good job for the community for decades, said CedarBough Saeji, a visiting assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington.
In the K-pop world, music stars are known as idols, and they are expected to set an example of how to act in society. It inspires passionate fandoms, and in the past, some idols would receive thousands of gifts a day from their ardent fans, Saeji said.
About two decades ago, K-pop groups began asking their fans to stop sending gifts and instead give charity, he said.
All of this had the effect of making the idol in question look like they were contributing to society, and portraying fans as more than obsessive devotees.
Even now, BTS ARMY members are told not to give pop stars any gifts other than of handwritten letters. At BTS concerts, there are often containers to donate goods to local charities, Saeji said.
And as K-pop has globalized, international fan bases have continued in that spirit of donating or doing a good job on behalf of their idol.
“They put a lot of effort into giving themselves and their music and their sincerity … the ARMY really wants to return on their behalf.”
How K-pop activism works
While there are some groups, like One In An ARMY, that unite for social causes, much of the work that K-pop fans do is not through an organized chain of command.
K-pop fandoms team up organically to get their idol’s name to appear on Twitter on their birthday, or stream their favorite band’s songs and videos as many times as possible to reach the top of the music charts. The access space tends to be Twitter, which means fans understand how to use algorithms to achieve their goals.
It is not a huge leap to use the same online organizing process for social affairs.
“Literally, only people are in contact with people through social media,” says Saeji. “This is happening naturally.”
In the United States, K-pop fans tend to be progressive and outward, and many are people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, Saeji said. Given that, it’s not surprising that K-pop fandoms are active in supporting Black Lives Matter, or opposing Trump.
The true conclusion of the recent successes of K-pop fans is not necessarily the power of the K-pop fandoms, but the power of the young, says Saeji.
“Young people today know how to organize online,” he said. “They have political opinions and are interested in politics and making political changes.”
CNN’s Alicia Lee and Donie O’Sullivan contributed to the reports.