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Politics

For K-pop stans, tanking Trump's rally is just the start

'If we could sell out stadiums, we could also empty them out,' teens warn

The K-pop fandom is diverse in the U.S. Attendees dance to K-pop songs at KCON USA, billed as the world's largest Korean culture convention and music festival, in Los Angeles.   © Reuters

NEW YORK/PALO ALTO, U.S. -- If Bernie Sanders got young people to vote in 2016, then K-pop might just take the crown in 2020.

President Trump's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last weekend ran into an unexpected turnout -- only 6,200 people showed up to the 19,000-seat stadium despite his campaign's claim that over a million people had requested tickets.

Teenagers on TikTok and K-pop stans -- K-pop fans who support a cause -- soon took credit. They mobilized a movement to reserve seats for the rally without any intention to attend. And the young K-pop fans expressed that they will not stop there.

"I really do believe as the fandom grows larger everyday, that they could potentially have the power to damage [Trump's] reelection," said Arushi, 16, a BTS fan from Boston. "It could highly be possible because tons of K-pop fans are over 18 and they're citizens in America so they could really do something big ... the whole fandom will go out of their way to do whatever they can for the cause."

Another fan, 15-year-old Ale, told the Nikkei Asian Review that she has heard most fans over 18 are voting this November.

Growing up on social media, Generation Z is well-versed in politics and social issues. They can multitask -- screaming at K-pop concerts one day while marching in civil rights movements the next. Although teenagers cannot vote yet, they know how to use the power of their sometimes-toxic fandom to fight for the causes they value, such as the Black Lives Matters movement and deflating Trump's campaign. And it works.

"If we could sell out stadiums, we could also empty them out," said Ashley, 18, a BTS fan who is confident that the fandom has the power to convince people to vote.

Teens nowadays not only demand purpose from corporations, they also want their idols to show that they care about social issues, something South Korean bands have excelled at. In early June, BTS wowed fans when the group donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matters movement.

"We stand against discrimination. We condemn violence," BTS's official Twitter account tweeted. "You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter"

BTS fans, dubbed the "army," immediately matched the band's donation with another million dollars, according to CNN.

The seven-member South Korean boy band presides over the largest K-pop following in the world. The group had sold out at least seven shows for the North America leg of their 2020 world tour with fans from every U.S. state, reported Vox.

BTS alone is currently worth 0.3% of South Korea's gross domestic product.

"[K-pop] is definitely becoming a lot more mainstream," said Eve Ng, a media studies professor at Ohio University. "I was really struck both last year and this year [by] how many of my students [listen to] K-pop bands, not even the big ones [like] BTS."

Noting that BTS's messages include "Love Yourself," an album title, Ng said that "it's very in tune with the 'wokeness' in the U.S. nowadays."

Members of South Korean boy band BTS pose on the red carpet during the annual MAMA Awards at Nagoya Dome in Nagoya, Japan.   © Reuters

The band's massive influence has been on full display, as the fandom pours its energy into fighting racism.

Besides deflating Trump's Tulsa rally, K-pop fans have been drowning out racist voices on Twitter. They have been posting their videos and pictures of their idols with hashtags such as #WhiteLivesMatters and #ItsOkayToBeRacist. Thanks to their efforts, now Twitter's algorithm categorizes these hashtags as K-pop trends.

K-pop fans also flooded a police app called iWatch Dallas with K-pop dancing videos after the Dallas Police Department asked people to send videos of illegal activities at protests, which led the department to take down the app temporarily, reported The Verge.

Fans even got "racist teens kicked out of schools as big as Harvard and Yale" by mass emailing the universities, claimed 16-year-old Katie, who is a fan of the boy band Stray Kids.

Although activism is not new to K-pop fans as idols often lead their fans to donate to charitable causes, disruptive activism such as emptying Trump's rally is relatively new.

Fandom 'armys' have always been involved in charities, said Mari, 21, an army member herself. "When we see a movement or event that needs a platform to gain attention, we're always ready to help. We have opinions and morals. If we see injustice, we have our morals telling us that change needs to happen."

The fandom is willing to act on behalf of their fellow fans because they see each other as family.

"Black Lives Matter is extremely important to K-pop fans because the fandom is diverse, which means there are many Black K-pop stans as well," said Arushi. "It's our duty to stand up for our fellow K-pop stans because racial inequality isn't tolerated at all in this fandom."

On Tuesday, a Twitter trend called #BlackArmyBlockParty garnered thousands of tweets from an "army" of African-American BTS fans, posting pictures of themselves and their favorite member side by side.

"Our community is filled with different races and cultures, so to see racism happen and Trump say these kinds of things really hit nerves in us," said Katie. "Many K-pop fans have these big platforms so when we all put our feuding aside, we can do some real damage to someone's reputation."

BTS's approach of releasing songs that talk about mental illness and online bullying, as well as showing the fans their human side offstage, has struck a chord with American teens -- part of the reason the K-pop's following has grown rapidly in the U.S.

Ale said she came across BTS during a difficult time in her life. "I had so much self-hate and I came across an advertisement about BTS ... they talk about the problems in today's world and mental illness, which no one has taught me." The K-pop industry has helped teenagers in more ways than adults think, she said, because nobody "really knows what could be going on in a teen's mind, and because most teens keep quiet and don't talk to their parents or guardians about their own mental illness."

Other fans have echoed Ale's reasoning.

"These idols kind of give us a home," said Katie. "I felt a sense of comfort, because they truly care about their fans and show it a lot. They always hope we're doing okay and it makes us feel important."

She said that K-pop idols "have saved so many lives with their music," including her own. 

A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump shoots a video with his mobile phone from the sparsely filled upper decks of the arena as the president addresses his first re-election campaign rally in several months at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20.   © Reuters

Now the fans are channeling the energy from positive K-pop music into political activism, using any social media platforms they are fluent in.

TikTok has emerged as the social media of choice among Gen-Zs in the U.S., where the app had been installed 165 million times as of April, according to data from market research firm Sensor Tower, in a country of 328 million people. 

As TikTok's Gen-Z users grow up, many of them have or are about to reach the legal voting age of 18, making TikTok an ideal platform to reach young and future voters.

Among U.S. users 18 and older, TikTok brought in 22.2 million mobile unique visitors in January, 23.2 million in February and 28.8 million in March. In April, that number jumped to 39.2 million, according to data from media analytics firm Comscore.

The growing influence of the hugely popular short-form video app has also attracted the attention of U.S. regulators.

The app's Chinese owner, ByteDance, is the subject of a national security review for its 2017 acquisition of the American company Musical.ly, which later became TikTok. Following the investigation, the Department of Defense and multiple U.S. military branches have warned their personnel not to use the app over "national security concerns," according to media reports.

One major concern that U.S. regulators have raised is that because TikTok's parent is Chinese, it may transfer data from U.S. users to China or censor content that strikes a nerve with Beijing.

ByteDance and TikTok have said in several statements that all U.S. user data is stored in the U.S., and that the American operation does not fall under Chinese jurisdiction.

However, the statements have not quelled U.S. regulators' suspicion of TikTok's close ties to China. In March, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing chaired by Sen. Josh Hawley, a prominent China hawk. The hearing -- titled "Dangerous Partners: Big Tech and Beijing"-- focused on data security threats facing U.S. citizens from Chinese companies like ByteDance's TikTok. New legislation to ban TikTok on government devices was proposed by Hawley a few days later.

While President Trump has not publicly commented on TikTok and its users' alleged "prank" on his Tulsa rally, he was "furious" at the low turnout, reported NBC News. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, on Sunday denied the interference from TikTok teens and K-pop fans.

"Registering for a rally means you've RSVPed with a cellphone number and we constantly weed out bogus numbers, as we did with tens of thousands at the Tulsa rally, in calculating our possible attendee pool," said Parscale in a statement. "These phony ticket requests never factor into our thinking."

Still, TikTok could face additional scrutiny from the administration after the Tulsa incident.

K-pop fans said they had mobilized their friends and families to reserve tickets with them, and that they will do it again for future Trump rallies, as well as encouraging everyone around them to vote.

Ela, 16, said she reserved seven to 10 seats at the Tulsa rally and her friends and family made reservations as well. Mari booked 10 tickets and her peers did the same.

The fans Nikkei talked to said that people in fan groups are located all over the U.S., from coastal states such as New York and California to southern states like Florida and Georgia.

Although most K-pop fans expressed that they will vote or encourage their peers to vote in November, some fans hold a rather conservative attitude toward participating in election-related activism.

"I'm definitely not a fan of Donald Trump's work [and] I do feel he needs to be voted out of office. But at the same time, it's moving way too fast," said Savanna from Florida. More pragmatic planning is necessary, the 15-year-old said, "because we never know what could happen after that" if Trump were indeed ousted. "[Young K-pop fans] are mostly innocent and sugarcoat everything so this may cause some fans to not think maturely," she added.

When asked about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Savanna said that she cannot judge because she is yet to be convinced.

"We've already seen multiple examples of large-scale engagement driven by K-pop fandom," said Aynne Kokas, media studies professor at the University of Virginia. "Whether that translates into voting, I think it will be interesting because we see people acting online, but we don't necessarily see them leaving their houses ... apart from going to concerts. This will be a testament to the power of [fandom] as a cultural force."

Despite uncertainty about the upcoming election, several teen K-pop fans are still fired up.

"I've seen many K-pop stans with large followings encouraging other people to vote this November," said Ela. "I'm still not of age to vote but I will gladly spread the word and encourage those around me to."

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