Editor’s Note: Euny Hong is the author of “The Power of Nunchi: the Korean Secret to Happiness and Success” (Penguin 2019), “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture” (Picador 2014) and “Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners” (Simon & Schuster 2006). She was previously an editor at France 24 in Paris, a columnist at the Financial Times, and a Fulbright Young Journalists Fellow in Berlin. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Trump’s under-attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday had an unexpected M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist: K-pop fans and Gen Z-ers had executed a social media putsch to drive down attendance. They made hundreds of TikTok videos encouraging fellow users to sign up for tickets to the rally (the rally organizers had not placed a cap on tickets), and then not turn up. While the true impact of these videos is unknown, K-pop “stans” (stalker fans) claim that their fake registrations might number in the hundreds of thousands, as the New York Times reported. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted her thanks to K-pop fans for their “contributions in the fight for justice.” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who probably should study up on the Streisand effect, drew more attention to the matter by rubbishing the role of the TikTokers.
Social media is teeming with speculation that some unidentified party was mucking about in a US election, Russian-style, using the TikTok algorithm to viralize the ticket purchase exhortation videos. The app’s Chinese origins did nothing to quell conspiracy theories. Vice journalist Tim Pool tweeted dramatically, “One of the tactics used by Russia to meddle was the use of social media to manipulate public perception. This is a Chinese app facilitating the largest most impactful election meddling we have seen yet, assuming its true.”
TikTok stated in October of 2019 that it does not operate in China, and has denied that US user data is stored on Chinese servers, and, most crucially, “We are not influenced by any government, including the Chinese government.” I am the first person to be skeptical of any corporate-ese defense. But even if TikTok is lying, why make the leap that the Chinese Communist Party has any interest in catfishing American teenagers using fake K-pop social media accounts? Has the Party interfered in other viral interests of this demographic, like high school prom-posals or the TV show “Riverdale”?
Another Twitter user implied that K-pop accounts were Chinese in origin. A congressional hopeful tweeted, “Hey, @aoc— How many of these ‘teens’ were US Citizens?” A right-wing lawyer and self-described satirist asked, “Did @aoc use the Chinese Communist-party owned @tiktok_us to interfere in a Presidential election??”
Such theories, while amusing, make no sense. Anything is possible, of course, but it seems more plausible by an overwhelming margin that K-Pop fans deserve the credit for their Trump rally activism. As a former math geek, I was curious about the inner workings of the allegedly manipulated TikTok algorithm, but I did not even see evidence that the conspiracy theorists knew what an algorithm was.
Calling this a conspiracy is dismissive, provincial and racist – for more than one reason. First of all, such pooh-poohing implies that Asian music couldn’t possibly be popular enough in the US to mobilize action on this scale. It also severely underestimates the eagerness of Gen Z K-pop fans to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier this month, in the days following the death of George Floyd, K-pop fans flooded the Twitter hashtag #whitelivesmatter with K-pop memes and fancams so they could mute the online reach of hateful posts.
The Occam’s razor explanation for the TikTok rebellion is the most accurate one: when there are competing explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one is better. Despite the doubters, the simple reality is that yes, there really are this many K-pop fans in the US: last year, for example, BTS became the first band since the Beatles to have three albums hit number one on the Billboard top 200 within a one-year period. Furthermore, K-pop bands are very active on TikTok, which may explain the platform’s popularity among global K-pop fans. While it’s true that the Korean government were early investors in exporting Korean pop culture, it’s not true that BTS is funded by the government. No one is messing with the algorithm.
In 2012, after Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became a sensation, a white male editor I know was irrationally perturbed. He told me, “There is no way the ‘Gangnam Style’ video really had a billion people viewing it. The Koreans paid 100,000 people in China to click on the link 100,000 times.” The nice word for that theory would be “illogical.” Have you seen “Gangnam Style?” If you haven’t, trust me – it’s not the video that South Korea wants to be remembered for.
These allegations about Trump’s rally have an undercurrent of the type of denial that happens at an empire’s end – in this case, the American inability to accept that a US political event could be that easily eclipsed by another country’s pop culture.
Someone with the handle @CultureWarlord made a claim I’ve heard many times in anti-fan e-mails addressed to me, “There is no such thing as ‘KPop allies.’ All these KPop accounts are Chinese phone farms. Big expose coming.”
Why will a certain type of person refuse to believe that people outside Korea, especially Americans, like K-pop that much? This resistance may be rooted in the same mentality that causes many Americans to resist the metric system, soccer and wearing masks during global pandemics. They see such phenomena as foreign and possibly emasculating invasions.
The most knee-slapping bit of this whole incident was that it had some pretty powerful people quaking in their boots over a force even scarier than foreign hackers, and from a demographic that can’t even vote yet: the mighty Gen Z, who were the driving force behind the action. Oh how we underestimated them.
In the last decade or so, after broadband became cheap and ubiquitous, the Cassandras of the world were terrified what would become of the first generation in history to be raised with easy access to all the information in the world. Many parents worried in the back of their minds that their children might become early porn addicts or have a shaky moral compass dictated either by apathy or aggression fueled by violent multi-user videogames. Imagine the grown-ups’ collective surprise that Gen-Zers found an unprecedented, terrifying way (to the President and his supporters, at least) to wield influence? Though some referred to the teens’ activism in more derisive terms as a “prank,” Twitter was still a-Twitter with chuffed parents boasting that their teen had trolled the leader of the free world.
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We live in strange times, in which the truism “correlation is not causation” seems less and less accurate. You wouldn’t assume that being a Trump supporter would correlate with refusal to wear a mask during a deadly epidemic, but the photos of that under-attended rally are an unmistakable – if spotty – sea of bare faces. And you wouldn’t think that K-pop fans and Gen-Z social media addicts would become a defining force against white supremacy, yet here we are. And they’re just warming up. Next time, it will seem less like a prank and more like the Velvet Revolution… yet entirely online.