Day 6·Q&A

K-pop fans know how to mobilize online, and they're now getting political

CedarBough Saeji, a scholar in contemporary Korean culture, says we shouldn't be surprised that teenage fans of Korean pop music took responsibility for trolling U.S. President Donald Trump's latest campaign rally.

Teens, K-pop fans take credit for inflating advance attendance numbers at Trump rally

Monsta X performs onstage during the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 20, 2019, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A scholar in contemporary Korean culture says we shouldn't be surprised that teen fans of Korean pop music took responsibility for trolling U.S. President Donald Trump's latest campaign rally.

Trump's team bragged that more than one million people had registered for tickets online to attend the president's rally in Tulsa, Okla., last weekend.

Instead, the arena on Saturday was only about one-third full. Reports attributed the gap between expectations and reality to youths on social media platforms such as TikTok and fans of K-pop both in the United States and around the world.

CedarBough Saeji, a visiting professor at Indiana University Bloomington, spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the history of massive online movements fuelled by K-pop fans and why they have turned their attention to stateside politics. 

Here is part of their conversation.

This is not the first time K-pop fans have taken collective action. Can you tell us about some of the other campaigns they've carried out lately?

K-pop fans can only reliably be counted on to support their idols, and most of that has ended up happening online because, obviously, Korea is far away and fans are spread all around the world.

Underestimating how well young people understand the internet is a real big mistake at this point.- CedarBough Saeji

And so when they're supporting their idols online, they've principally been trying to do things through demonstrating metrics — things like streaming or YouTube views, social media mentions, hashtags and musical sales.

They've been doing that really, really well. And recently, they seem to have realized that those exact same tactics can be used for politics as well.

What was it the fans were doing that showed them that they had the online savvy and ability to actually take things on and get results?

K-pop fans have been involved in a number of different campaigns. They frequently advocate on behalf of K-pop artists. They try to help them get more attractive schedules, get more frequent comebacks.

One of the political actions that a lot of American fans got into earlier this year, actually, is that one of the members of the group Monsta X [named Wonho], which is very popular in the United States, had been accused of some previous impropriety.

CedarBough Saeji is a scholar of contemporary Korea and a visiting professor at Indiana University Bloomington. (Submitted by CedarBough Saeji)

Fans around the world campaigned for him to get reinstated into his group. Every 24 hours, there had to be a new set of hashtags that were going to be trended to help Wonho be reinstated. And they even spent a ton of pooled money on large billboards and lobbying to media organizations, trying to get them to cover the story.

Eventually, after Wonho was cleared of the accusations, he was able to get a contract as a solo artist. And so I think fans felt very encouraged by their ability to help out somebody that they loved so much.

And obviously, they felt empowered by their mastery of digital pressure.

Yeah, I think that underestimating how well young people understand the internet is a real big mistake at this point.

A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump is seen during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday. Amid lower-than-expected turnout for the event, people speculated whether teens, TikTok users and K-pop fans artificially inflated the advance attendance numbers. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

So they turned that toward Black Lives Matter. How did that work? How much money did they manage to raise using these digital techniques?

Well, just one of the campaigns, which was a matching campaign after the group BTS donated $1 million (US).The BTS fan collective, [known as] One In An Army, organized a matching donation of $1 million.

It took them only 24 hours to raise that money, which is just amazing. But K-pop fans were already donating online. There were already these chains where you would upload a receipt from a donation that you'd just given and [say], "Pass it on. Keep the chain going!" And things like that.

So it's … also lots of little actions, lots of showing up at demonstrations, lots of sharing petitions — all of that kind of stuff.

The trend is definitely progressive. It's anti-racist. It's pro-Black Lives Matter. It appears that these are more progressive values than you might suspect would come out of the K-pop movement, which seems to be kind of conservative on some level. Is that accurate?

It is in some ways, particularly in Korea. It doesn't stick its head out a whole lot — doesn't take strong political stances.

However, K-pop has always been taking social stances. K-pop idols are expected to provide this good example of how to live in the world. And part of that is: you should volunteer. You should donate. You should care about disadvantaged populations.

Guests attend as the K-pop boy band BTS visits The Today Show at Rockefeller Plaza on Feb. 21 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

This is a little bit more political than social right now in the United States. But I'm not entirely surprised that the U.S. fandom is so politically progressive, because they are people who are outward-looking and open-minded.

Otherwise, they wouldn't be consuming Korean media. They'd just be consuming the same run-of-the-mill American media fed to Americans by American radio stations and American TV stations.

Do you think it's possible that K-pop could actually empower teenagers to get more involved in politics in this American election year?

I absolutely think that a lot of people right now are feeling very empowered. K-pop fans may generally be young, but I would say the average age is well over voting age.

Any conservative pundits out there should really be paying attention to what's going on right now. You have very empowered, very enthusiastic young people who have realized that they can flex and make a difference.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Annie Bender. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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