Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and professor at McGill University in Montreal, has long studied online activism and hacker culture. She watched closely over the past several weeks as K-pop fans began to intervene in US social justice issues, and she sees definite parallels to Anonymous, the online hacker collective that originated on 4Chan.
Like Anonymous, the portion of K-pop stan Twitter participating in these campaigns developed political tactics through a series of “microevolutions,” Coleman says. The idea of an entire fandom moving from apolitical to political is wrong. Instead, when they engage in the organizing activities central to their online communities—troll campaigns in the case of Anonymous, manipulating social-media algorithms and trending lists for K-pop fans—“that very process sort of feeds back to them and they realize ‘Wait, we have power.’”
“K-pop fans are quite aware of the ways that they are characterized as a group, as this really rabid group of people that also are kind of sheeple,” says Toronto’s Cho. “That they are just unthinkingly following and tweeting and amplifying things.” When she interviews individual fans, “they’re way more savvy than that stereotype gives them credit for” and “recognize this idea of K-pop as this really powerful force.”
And stans aren’t going to stop here
Now that K-pop is a meme, it also has the potential to be weaponized. K-pop stans don’t actually need to show up in force to get credit for an act of online heroics, if the people cheering them on don’t understand what they’re looking at. And viral pipelines to international media coverage have long been a way for those pushing extremist views to seek bigger platforms. Right now, the myth of the K-pop uprising is new, and the story it tells is a positive and comforting one for its liberal fans. But that won’t last forever.
Coleman and Larsen are certain that Trump supporters and the far right are watching this develop too. That could put some of the younger fans who have participated in these campaigns in danger.
“Certain corners of the far right will be innovating in response to this,” Coleman says. “They’re not visible right now, but they will be.”
And some of them will be TikTok teens—just not the ones valorized by the liberal myths.