How K-Pop Stans Became an Activist Force to Be Reckoned With

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. WIRED UKThis story originally appeared on WIRED UK.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.”