Why the K-pop fans credited with disrupting the Trump rally should come as no surprise

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.

Before the rally, people on social media platforms TikTok and Twitter encouraged people to sign up to attend the Trump event, and not attend. A video, with more than 300,000 views, called fans of the South Korean megagroup BTS in particular to join the trolling campaign.
After the rally, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted to Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, saying he had been “rocked” by teens on TikTok by flooding the Trump campaign with counterfeit ticket reservations. “Kpop allies, we also see and appreciate their contributions in the fight for justice,” he added.

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.

In the past month alone, K-pop fans have used their vast social media to bring about change. Earlier this month, K-pop fans drowned out racist voices by posting images of K-pop groups using anti-Black hashtags, such as #WhiteLivesMatter.
After the Dallas Police Department asked people on Twitter to post a video of “illegal protest activity” to their IWatch Dallas app, K-pop fans flooded the app with fan cameras, or clips. of K-pop idols, causing the app to crash.
And after the popular BTS gang donated $ 1 million to support the Black Lives Matter movement, BTS ‘”One In An ARMY” charity fundraising group helped raise another $ 1 million for the cause.
“Given the diversity of ARMY (the name of the BTS fandom) and its strong desire to help others, it is not surprising that ARMY wanted to support the Black Lives Matter movement,” the group said in a statement at the time.

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.

Since then, K-pop fandoms in South Korea have volunteered and donated to charities on behalf of their idol. Super Junior fans donated bags of rice to the Salvation Army, for example, while Block B fans raised money to build a well in Cambodia, CNN affiliate SBS reported.

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.

BTS's army of fans: inside one of the most powerful fandoms in the world
“Fans practice such activities not only for local charities, but also as a way to promote their stars,” Sun Jung of the National University of Singapore wrote in a 2012 research article, noting that while K-pop fandoms can “create a nuisance” online, they can also lead to new forms of social activism.

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.

In March 2018, BTS fan Erika Overton, a Brooklyn native in her 30s, co-founded One In An ARMY, a fan collective that partners with nonprofits to encourage fandom to make small donations to a chosen cause.
According to its website, the group has helped raise funds to finance Syrian refugee meals and baby formula in Venezuela.
Last year, Overton told CNN that he saw support projects to help those in need as a natural extension of being a BTS fan.

“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.

Why did the past decade see the rise and rise of East Asian pop culture?

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.