By now you may have heard that there’s a new sheriff in town: K-pop fans, they’re are here to save the day! An army of online fans of Korean bands, particularly BTS, have been getting organised to lend their social media reach to tackle several problems. By now you may have already heard about how K-pop stans handed a sound defeat to Donald Trump, as they signed up for his failed Tulsa rally, Trump’s campaign bragged that they were expecting tens of thousands of people, but only 6,200 showed up. They have also started attacking the Trump campaign e-commerce site by placing large orders and leaving them in saved in the basket, the idea is that this will disrupt their stock management.
These fans have also been linked to the Anonymous resurgence, which is now credited with mercilessly flooding right-wing hashtags with K-pop gifs. Whenever there is need for immediate online action, these politically-aware teens will answer the call and hashtag the heck out of their enemies.
This is all good, right? Progressives could use a bit of an online army right now as things are going wrong everywhere. We can all enjoy a little more K-pop in our lives surely.
I am slightly troubled by the attention this new online group is getting, not because I disapprove of their tactics (although I would argue as to their effectiveness), but because I think that it is could be counter-productive in the long run. The perception that there is an army of hackers doing the right thing (in the case of Anonymous), or an online posse of technically-savvy kids provides a welcome narrative, but it could have negative effects. Allow me to explain.
The first problem I have is that the above narrative seems to be at best an exaggeration of what is really happening. While the idea of armies of K-pop fans successfully trolling the most powerful man in the world is decidedly delightful, there’s little indication that the woeful attendance at Trump’s rally had anything to do with the K-pop stans. Firstly, the event was on a first-come first-served basis, so signing up online and not showing up had no effect, millions could have signed up and if people actually showed up, then it would have had no effect. The reality is that many of these sign-ups would have been obviously fake (I assume not everyone used a VPN), so they can be easily ignored. People didn’t attend because at least some of them got scared of being in an enclosed auditorium with other people during a pandemic. Similarly, the e-commerce Trump site can also account for fake orders never being fulfilled, particularly when this tactic is being broadcast to everyone else.
I also find the hashtag attacks to be useless, and even potentially counter-productive. In recent weeks there have been lots of racist hashtags that have become trending topics on Twitter (I won’t repeat them, but you may have seen some of them). When looking at the content, they usually are filled with K-pop gifs or people complaining on the racist hashtag trending in the first place, but it is trending precisely because people are posting in it, but also the K-pop fans are boosting it with their own flooding. In the end they promote the racist message even if they are denouncing it, by posting with the hashtag you make it more popular. This is taken as a victory by racists and white supremacists, it is often their tactic to make something so outrageous that people and mainstream media will discuss it, publicity and visibility are the purpose.
And then there is the Anonymous resurgence, which seems to be coupled with this new brand of online activism. At first there was quite a triumphalist return by Anonymous, they hacked a radio frequency and started playing “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A. They hacked a website! Cool, I thought, some nice online resistance again! But then the claims started getting wilder and less believable. Anonymous has obtained evidence that Epstein didn’t commit suicide! Anonymous has obtained dirt on Trump! Anonymous foiled a foreign DDOS attack against the USA!
In short, it soon became clear that the people who were heralding the return of Anonymous had no idea what they were talking about, Anonymous was just a K-pop fan’s idea of a hacker. To me the most delightful thing was to see thousands of clueless K-pop fans asking “what is a DDOS?” By the way, there was no such attack.
My concern with the seemingly harmless narrative of the almighty hacker and the armies of K-pop fans is that it continues the tradition of clicktivism that has hounded us for many years. For me, the blight of clicktivism started in 2007 with the founding of Change.org, the online petition platform. While getting people to sign a petition is not wrong, Change.org and other similar platforms, such as Avaaz, tend to give people the false impression that they are doing something positive, while also allowing them to forget about the cause they just signed as soon as they leave the website. It is the same sense of useless action that participating in a hashtag gives you, and tends to have no real effect.
But perhaps a more corrosive effect is that it gives a false sense of victory that distorts reality. I remember reading a couple of years ago an online activist declaring that their group had single-handedly ended Nazism in the USA by helping to doxx a few white supremacists. It is this sense of empty triumphalism that makes people inactive where and when it counts. I remember reading over and over how the youth vote was overwhelmingly in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, and how this was going to translate into a great defeat for Boris Johnson in the December election. The fabled youth vote disappeared during the election, giving Labour its biggest defeat in a generation, but I recall the day before the election how Red Twitter was in a triumphalist mood. The same thing happened with Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, Australia, etc. The Youth Vote Will Save Us has become one of the emptiest promises in modern politics.
How can it be? There’s so much energy online! We win all the hashtag wars! We virtually punched all the Nazis, we doxxed and blocked all the nasty people online! I don’t follow a single Tory! How do we continue to lose?
The key is not to trust that you won the hashtag war, people have to act as well. In other words, people have to vote.
For the sake of clarity, I’m not saying that online activism is useless, I think that there’s scope for valuable online action, but unless we go out and do something, then nothing will change, no matter how many BTS fans you manage to boost your message.