How Millennials and Gen Z K-pop fans are using social media to enact change
By Olivia Jay
Usually when I tell people that I like K-pop I’m met with one of three responses: a blank stare, an incredulous ‘why?’ or an accusatory ‘aren’t you a bit old for that?’ (Because apparently when you’re 23 you’re too told to like things anymore).
These questions don’t really surprise me. In Western media, K-pop is largely associated with sparkly clothes, synchronised dance routines, plastic surgery and screaming thirteen-year-old girls. However, recently K-pop fans have been gaining attention in the media for a different reason: social activism.
In the past year alone, K-pop fans have inflated audience expectations at a Trump rally, co-opted alt-right hashtags on Twitter with ‘fancams’ (videos of the artists dancing) and raised US$1.2 million for the Black Lives Matter campaign, matching the US$1 million donated by the band BTS. And all this was largely organised through Twitter, Tiktok and Instagram.
More recently, K-pop fans have become involved in supporting Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) issues. They have joined and created campaigns to stop Asian hate globally, demonstrating how Millennials and Gen Z are ushering in a new age of activism centred on social media.
So how does this activism typically begin? Following the fatal shooting of eight people on 16 March in Georgia, six of whom were Asian-American women, the K-pop band BTS penned a letter on Twitter. In the letter, the seven-member group described their own experiences of racism and called for an end to violence against Asians, stating ‘we stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence…We will stand together.’
This prompted many fans to describe their own experiences of racism across social media. ‘Thank you for sharing your story, for conveying such a powerful message, thank you for comforting me,’ one Twitter user wrote. ‘As an Asian, I can understand your feeling. And thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone, and so are you, we’ll always fight together. I love you.’
In total, the tweet by BTS gained over 2.3 million likes and over a million retweets, and fans sent the hashtags #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate to the top of the worldwide trends. Fans didn’t just stop there though. If you scrolled through #StopAsianHate on 17 March, you would have seen hundreds of threads made by K-pop fans explaining the shooting in Georgia and sharing helpful information and resources. One such resource, made by the BTS fan page @BigHit_Labels, provides links to news articles, mental health helplines, websites to report incidents of racism and petitions so that fans can ‘educate others, take action, donate, and more’.
Meanwhile, fans of another popular K-pop group named NCT have created their own online magazine to write about issues that concern them, including representation of Asian Americans in film, and K-beauty and Black women. Other groups of fans have participated in disaster relief, with Indonesian K-pop fans quickly raising over $100,000 in January for those affected by floods in South Kalimantan, or have started their own initiatives, such as the Kpop4Planet movement created in January.
Strength In Numbers
So why are K-pop fans so engaged in social activism and what makes them so effective at mobilising support? One of the major reasons is strength in numbers. For example, the group Blackpink have 61 million subscribers to their YouTube channel and the group BTS have over 29 million Twitter followers. This has enabled fans to easily sabotage hashtags they disagree with, like #bluelivesmatter and #MAGA, by flooding them with memes and pre-saved ‘fancams’.
Unsurprisingly for a group of people who are largely made up of Millennials and Gen Z, K-pop fans are also proficient users of technology and social media, enabling them to spread information with ease. When Twitter fans needed more than 280 characters to explain the shooting in Georgia, many users turned to the platform Carrd, used for building simple, one-page sites. Fans were familiar with this platform after using it to supplement their twitter bios, including information about their favourite groups and their ‘bias’ (favourite member).
The global spread of K-pop also means that fans are now efficient at spreading information across countries and languages. Within the fandom are fans who dedicate themselves to translating content. For instance, under the letter from BTS posted on Twitter, fans have translated the letter into Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin and even offering alternative translations of the English one provided.
More than anything else though, it is K-pop fans’ passion and sense of community that lies at the heart of their activism. Many K-pop fans come from minority groups, including Asian Australians, Black Americans and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and have used K-pop to make friends with people who share similar life experiences. “We want to fight for our future,” said Indonesian student Nurul Sarifah, 21, who set up Kpop4Planet.
So just as K-pop continues to grow internationally, we are likely to see a lot more activism of this kind in the future. And maybe next time when someone asks me why I like K-pop, I might mention the millions of dollars raised for worthy causes, as well as the catchy songs.
Olivia Jay is an aspiring editor living in Melbourne. She is currently completing a Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne.