Hysterical and ignorant stigmas are frequently thrown at individuals who participate in K-pop fandoms. They are constantly perceived as passive people who do not have the agency to think independently, let alone capable of thinking critically. Whereas in reality, a majority of K-pop fans are actively participating in what is called fan activism. According to Kligler-Vilenchik, McVeigh-Schultz, Weitbrecht, and Tokuhama (2012), fan activism is a powerful means of advocacy and mobilization that enables civic engagement as well as political participation from fandoms. Through fan activism, K-pop fans around the world are now increasingly aware of important issues such as sexual assault, racism, police brutality, economic inequality, and so on. This essay will explore fan activism in K-pop, fandoms particularly how they act as a transnational community demanding victim’s justice over a sexual gender-based violence case.
Conceptual Framework: Fan Activism by Brough and Shrestova (2012)
Although fan activism is initially used to describe how fans lobbied for a content-related outcome such as the representation of racial and sexual minorities, Brough and Shresthova (2012) stated that fan activism can be understood as a fan-driven effort to address and bring awareness for civic or political issues through engagement with popular culture content. This means that fandoms nowadays have the capacity to engage in and organize real-world issues. The said activism in fandoms is enabled by their shared interest in a particular artist and their content through which the fans come together, interact, and develop a sense of collective identity that can be mobilized toward collective action (Brough & Shresthova, 2012). In addition to that, Melucci (1996) stated how when dealing with networks of loose affiliations, preexisting affective communities such as fan networks might play a significant role in motivating participation in a movement.
K-pop Stan Twitter as Transnational Community
One of the activities that prominently signifies fan culture, including in K-pop fandoms, is the social interaction among fellow fans—mostly to converse about their shared enjoyment of supporting their beloved artists. The interaction is conducted through various offline and/or online platforms, in which the latter has emerged as the preferred one in K-pop fandoms (Pearson, 2010). We argue the favoured usage of social media stems from the composition of the K-Pop fandom itself: a) a majority of which comprises young fans who are digital natives; b) widespread among varying countries; and c) experienced the restriction of limited physical interaction amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Online social media enables K-pop fans to engage, communicate, and initiate—with Twitter visibly becoming the most popular choice in recent years. Its features of tweeting, replying, and retweeting are making it very convenient for K-pop fandoms to convey their thoughts about their favorite artists or their boldest political stance.
Besides conveying, it is also very convenient to respond—agreeing, dissenting, and, therefore, debating. Interaction of K-pop fans in Twitter has grown as an increasingly relevant phenomenon, to the point the space has earned its own referring phrase: stan twitter—in which would also be used in this essay when referring to said phenomenon. Castells (2009) defined public space as the place wherein discourses are made, supported, challenged, and/or oppressed. Existing discourses in public spaces could be classified based on their relevance: a) dominant discourses, which are articulated by the majority and reinforced as the widely accepted truth (status quo); and b) marginal discourses, which are articulated by the minority and regarded as the disruptive truth. Traditional understanding of public space usually refers to spacious areas where people are allowed to gather and engage. However, technology innovation made it possible for individuals to interact through online platforms—often more accessible to a wider audience and less controlled by authoritarian entities, with most of the spaces extending transnationally beyond territorial borders. Online platforms could then be perceived as the emerging alternative public space, where media articulation is significantly less regulated—thus giving marginal discourse bigger exposure to reconfigure the status quo.
We identify the main points reflected are as follows: a) transnational nature of individuals belonging in the same community of fandom; b) emergence of social media as alternative public space; and c) disruptive marginal discourse inflicted through engagements among K-pop fans. We then argue that K-pop stan Twitter is a massive transnational community, in which the members actively utilize online platforms as alternative public space to initiate interactions and produce discourses. Its transnational nature also implies K-pop stan twitter members as grassroot international actors that could leverage their collective power when advocating marginal discourse about progressive social issues.
K-pop Stan Twitter and Activism Against Gender-Based Violence
Vaguely mentioned in the previous part, members of K-pop stan Twitter might leverage their collective power to advocate social issues—including awareness about gender-based violence. However, one underlying question persists: why K-pop stan Twitter, or stan twitter in general, seems to be more politically correct (therefore more supportive towards progressive clauses) than the rest of Twitter spaces? We argue that this is because K-pop stan twitter are mostly composed of minority youths (Yoon, 2019), which makes them more politically sensitive. This makes them more interested to be critical against the status quo and enamoured with progressive values of empowering the disempowered. Also, K-pop stan Twitter is relatively out of reach from most governmental intervention, which allows freedom to express themselves through every intersectional identities that they might bear. This makes K-pop stan twitter a safe place for any progressive dissents to advocate their ideas—including about gender-based violence issues that are yet to be normalized by the more conservative public spaces.
Another question comes up: why is it easier to create a progressive society on stan Twitter? This could again be reflected back toward the technological features of online platforms, including Twitter. Every uploaded content could be easily accessed and reproduced—by anyone, anywhere without being barred or hurdled by oppressive regulations. Therefore, it is also relatively easy to shine a spotlight on previously marginal discourses and shift the focus towards its discussion, including progressive discourses like gender-based violence. In a conservative public space, the premise of gender-based violence as something innate and inherent embedded through gender roles is normalized and justified—therefore rendering it as the dominant discourse (at the same time, rendering gender-based violence
awareness as marginal discourse) in many public spaces and is bound to be reinforced as the status quo, a truth for the uninformed majority. Acknowledging this, gender-based violence awareness as marginal discourse has very limited space to occupy.
Also through the same acknowledgement, gender-based violence activism has shifted to online platforms—in hope that marginal discourses could be spread to wider audiences independently without restrictions, thus helping to raise awareness of gender-based violence. The emphasis of online activism is to reconfigure the collective understanding through discourses and narratives—normalizing, appropriating, and justifying the hidden truths that might stand against the reinforced status quo. In regards to gender-based violence, activism is needed to create collective understanding that: a) gender-based violence exists; b) gender-based violence should not be normalized; and c) gender-based violence should be eradicated entirely through strict regulations that warrant consequences for the culprit. In this case, members of K-pop stan twitter could then initiate campaigns, propagandas, or other activism means to advocate the gender-based violence issues—usually by spreading educational pointers, threads, or links. The educational contents are widely distributed and discussed throughout the public space (even transnationally) through Twitter features of replies, retweets, direct messages, and shares—thus making the discourse more prominent and relevant. Some educational contents are even tagged along the artists’ content to encourage fans, even the most unwilling apoliticals, to at least passively participate in the discourse. Most of the fans might also be previously un/misinformed about the issues, thus increasing the urgency of the activism. Therefore, stan twitter could then form a collective understanding about the urgency of gender-based violence and leverage itself as a transnational power to influence decision-makers—which will be shown through the following case study.
Case Study: Burning Sun Scandal and Scrutiny from K-pop Stan Twitter
How the fandom responded to the Burning Sun scandal is once again proof that fan activism is a strong mode of mobilization in which awareness could be spread rapidly. The Burning Sun scandal is a sexual assault scandal involving several celebrities in South Korea including Seungri—the youngest member of one of Korea’s most influential boy bands called Big Bang.
This scandal started with emerging allegations toward a famous Korean singer and entertainer Jung Joonyoung, who had drugged and raped women then proceeded to share a video of him doing such vile acts through KakaoTalk chatroom (Wilder, 2019). In April 2019, a woman testified that she was one of the sexual assault victims and stated how she could not remember what had happened that night but she remembered waking up unclothed next to one of the men in the chatroom (Elgakhlab, 2019). Since then, the case gained both domestic and international outrage thus encouraging the public to call for a thorough investigation by the police. Further development of the case not only unveiled a number of sexual crimes committed by K-Pop stars, but also the ongoing spycam epidemic in women’s bathrooms, police bribery, and obstruction of justice done by higher-ups. The scandal then ended with the detainment of Jung on charges of illegal hidden camera filming and three years sentence of Seungri on charges such as organizing prostitution, habitual gambling, and illegal foreign currency (Kelley & Herman, 2020).
Along with the emergence of this scandal, domestic and international K-pop fans have started to use their platform, mainly Twitter, to speak up about this case and start a discourse regarding the vile sexual assault done by the K-pop stars. Here, the fan activists play a big role in educating other fans, that are mostly uninformed, about how we should perceive a sexual assault case and to always prioritize the wellbeing of the victims. Big Bang’s fandom, called VIPs, released a statement urging Seungri’s entertainment agency (YG Entertainment) to remove him from the band after he committed serious gender-based sexual crimes and took advantage of Big Bang’s name for his personal interests (Lee, 2019). Furthermore, they also initiated a boycott towards YG Entertainment—mainly Seungri’s works so they could stop profiting off of this scandal and on top of the victim’s misery.
As the case progressed, K-pop fans from various fandoms also started to involve themselves in the issue to promote awareness on gender-based violence—an effort to support the victims, influence decision-makers to take firmer actions and overturn some fans’ previous stance on supporting Seungri despite everything. Simply put, K-pop stan twitter had been establishing four pattern of activism: a) spreading awareness about sexual gender-based violence, especially in regards of the Burning Sun case—mostly to the uninformed fans; b) debating misinformed fans that voiced misogynist ideas to understand the case; c) holding the culprits
accountable through petitions; and d) supporting the victims through donations and other material or non-material supports. Burning Sun case has shown how K-pop fans from across the world could make a transnational common understanding that sexual gender-based crimes should not be normalized, let alone tolerated. The case has also reflected the transnational solidarity to leverage fandom power on punishing culprits, supporting victims, and raising awareness. The leverage itself comes from the successful activism to shift dominant discourse towards eradicating sexual gender-based violence. If no action was taken, it would severely shame decision-makers and disrupt the business involved—especially since the case itself has received international attention.
To conclude, we argue that K-pop stan twitter is a massive transnational community, in which the members actively utilize online platforms as alternative public space to advocate progressive values—including gender-based violence, by raising awareness and holding the perpetrators accountable. Through transnational activism, K-pop stan twitter members have established themselves as grassroot international actors with leverage to influence discourses across the world. While not the perfect activism, the efforts might pave the way for future contemporary fights against gender-based violence—especially for the less progressive public spaces.
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Yudi Iswara Sinatriya Adhyaksa and Azuura Sheilaregita Hentriasari are the 3rd place winners of 2021 Jakarta Youth Summit Essay Competition. They can be found on Instagram with the username @yudiiswara and @azuurasheila