The incidents took many by surprise. But as a K-pop reporter who has covered the industry for two years, I am delighted to witness the world finally recognize fans of K-pop artists for who they are: a social-media-savvy and politically aware group of people who should not be underestimated.
Far too often, media coverage of South Korea’s multibillion-dollar industry with a global following has been riddled with stereotypes. Under the Western gaze, the industry is often characterized as manufactured and lacking creativity, with its origin often attributed to the Asian financial crisis. This has led to far-fetched takes, such as one arguing that " ‘Gangnam Style’ is, by definition, propaganda.”
A lot of column space has been seemingly reserved for stories that focus on the dark side of the industry — such as stories about suicides and sex crimes involving celebrities — while overlooking its creative and artistic side, or the diverse makeup of the fandom and their brilliant projects.
And fans themselves are often the target of trolling, mostly from predominantly male online communities (such as the gaming community), who stereotype K-pop fans as consisting of naive young girls — when they aren’t being accused of being bots because of how well they organize.
But the stereotype is a far cry from the truth. The global K-pop fandom consists of people from varying age groups, of different ethnicities, from all walks of lives, many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community.
Armed with sarcasm, wit and masterful use of social media — more than 6 billion tweets were about K-pop in 2019 — they have become a formidable force that can quickly and capably mobilize online. For example, at the height of the #MatchAMillion project, the Twitter account that led much of the charge was run by four people from Brazil, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Sweden, who joined forces to manage the campaign round the clock.
This, however, isn’t the first time the K-pop fandom has rallied around a political issue. When the death of two students in Bangladesh sparked protests calling for safer roads in 2018, fans from the country began sharing the news with the hashtag #WeWantJustice, and others from around the world came together to help spread the word globally on Twitter.
The following year, the Chilean government issued a report in which fans of K-pop were blamed in part for anti-government protests, accusing them for being critical of the country’s police force.
And earlier this year, Thai K-pop fans trended the hashtag #Dispatch, the name of a local celebrity news outlet, following its critical coverage of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who faced criticism for staying in a luxury hotel in southern Germany as novel coronavirus cases rose back home.
So why did many of us not see this side of the K-pop fandom? For one, while the gamer and streamer communities have been taken a lot more seriously by the media, efforts to study the K-pop community have been scarce.
And as many female fans and beat reporters have pointed out, we must also address the elephant in the room — sexism. It’s what has demonized the word “fangirl” and other things women are passionate about, leading to bizarre stereotypes of who K-pop fans are.
The fact that K-pop fans are often on a collision course with and the target of right-wing trolls is no coincidence. It’s the same reason some Democratic-leaning Twitter accounts have waxed lyrically about K-pop fans in recent days. Both groups see K-pop fans as a newly emerging progressive-leaning online demographic.
Don’t get me wrong: There is an ugly side to fandom culture, and K-pop fandoms are no exception. Fandom wars can get personal and toxic, and emotional conversations about topics such as race can lead to online pile-ons. There is also a lot of work to be done within the K-pop community to tackle issues of racism and bias and not to take constructive criticism too personally.
But K-pop fans continue to prove that people from different cultures with common passion and interests can come together, learn new things and work toward a collective goal. One thing is clear: This won’t be the last time you’ll hear about the online activism of the K-pop fandom.
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