K-pop: The music sensation shaping everything from Twitter to global politics

The millions of fans of the South Korean genre are dominating the conversation on social media and using their numbers to take a stand on issues ranging from police brutality to the war on Ukraine

K pop Twitter
BTS fans in New York in 2020.JOHN NACION IMAGING (Getty Images)
Clara Rebollo

For the whole of 2021 BTS, the most popular Korean pop (K-pop) group in the world, had more mentions on Twitter than Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and celebrity streamer Ibai Llanos. In Spain, K-pop reached first place in conversations on the platform about music, surpassing pop and reggaeton.

Indeed, K-pop-related tweets reached 7.8 billion worldwide last year. When BTS member Jeon Jung-Kook tweeted a selfie with a kiss emoticon, it was retweeted almost one million times and received more than three million likes. Jeon’s was 2021′s second most shared tweet, beaten only by Joe Biden’s post following his inauguration as president of the United States.

The records that BTS (the acronym in Korean stands for ‘bulletproof boy scouts’) have broken are historically equaled only by the Beatles. To be sure, the magnitude of the success reached not only by BTS but other South Korean artists is unprecedented. It is particularly reflected on Twitter where K-pop stars and their followers wield enormous influence on the conversation platform that has nearly 400 million users overall, according to SEO portal Blacklingo.

BTS has two main official profiles on Twitter: one with more than 45 million followers (surpassing the number that follows soccer teams Barça and influencer Kylie Jenner), and the other with over 38 million. A profile dedicated to the fictitious characters designed by the seven members of the group to sell marketing products has close to 12 million followers.

The success of these profiles has an unmistakable impact on the other brands managed by HYBE, the agency representing BTS. HYBE has more than three million Twitter followers, while its merchandising hub (HYBE MERCH which advertises products made by the groups it represents including TXT, Seventeen, and Enhyphen) has accumulated more than five million.

The domino effect also extends to Korea’s other major pop groups, as the followers of one tend to be interested in the others. Blackpink, the country’s most successful girl group in recent years, has garnered eight million followers on one account and six million on another, while EXO, of the same generation as the latter and BTS, is on the verge of 13 million.

While older groups with members in their 40s tend to have a more hands-off style of participation on Twitter, these young bands interact much more directly with their audience, uploading selfies, asking them questions, tweeting their thoughts, and cheering them on.

According to Kim Yeon-Jeong, head of Global K-pop at Twitter Korea, artists use Twitter and other platforms (such as Weverse and VLive, specific for content related to this type of music) to create their profiles and build a community before they even debut, when they are still aspiring.

“Last year we discovered that fourth-generation groups [newcomers in 2018] tweet 5.8 times more than second-generation groups, such as Super Junior [who debuted in 2005], and twice as much as third-generation, such as EXO or Blackpink [active since 2012 and 2016, respectively]. The artists of the fourth generation have a much closer, friendly relationship with the fans. The relationship is more horizontal,” Yeon-Jeong explains to EL PAÍS via video call.

The K-pop phenomenon is more than just the outsized number of followers and interactions on social media. It is also having a major effect on the social landscape, with bands and fans getting involved in the major social movements of our time.

A few days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a US police officer in May 2020, BTS tweeted that it was against racial discrimination, condemned violence and was donating $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement. Within 24 hours, a charity run by BTS fans matched the donation and raised another $1 million for the cause. “It was amazing to see how fans can lead movements like this and influence the world to be better,” says Kim Yeon-Jeong.

Yeon-Jeong says the Stop Asian Hate movement (which gained prominence last year protesting hate crimes targeting the Asian community) was also influenced by BTS and the messages the band made with respect to the cause. In fact, BTS’ post supporting Stop Asian Hate became the most shared tweet of 2021.

When the news broke that Russia had invaded Ukraine, BTS’ enormous capacity to mobilize fans once again became evident. ARMYS (as BTS fans call themselves) from all over the world showed their solidarity with the Ukrainian ARMYS and sought to raise funds via their profiles as well as fan profiles for other K-pop bands such as Stray Kids and Ateez.

The diversity of languages in which K-pop artists and fans communicate online is also particularly remarkable. Some artists tweet in English from time to time but most communication is in Korean. Thanks to Twitter’s translation tool, users who do not know the language can still understand the message. Kim Yeon-Jeong describes the relationship between the members as “diversity in unity.”

“This community is one of the most diverse. The fans are very close as a group, but at the same time, they are very diverse in terms of country of origin, language, etc. They are probably very different from soccer fans,” adds Kim, noting that content uploaded by fans of different groups is marked by respect and support for all fans.

Kim says it is difficult to find arguments between fans of different artists or disrespect towards particular artists. “It is feasible to imagine that between a specific popular group that is very popular and another, such as BTS and EXO, there would be some kind of rivalry, but in general fans just support their favorite group in a very positive way,” she insists.

Kim YeonJeong en las oficinas de Twitter de Seúl
Kim Yeon Jeong at the Twitter offices in Seoul, South Korea.Twitter

Some fans even support all groups from the same company, such as the stable of artists represented by SM (the agency that founded H.O.T., considered the first K-pop group, in 1996).

“It’s a unique culture that shows a lot of dedication,” Kim concludes. That kind of dedication has a name in Korean: 총공 (chonggong), which means “all-out attack” in a positive sense. When it is an artist’s birthday or an album is to be released, users flood the platform with messages of celebration and anticipation.

A paradigmatic example of chonggong occurred around the Grammy Awards just a few days ago. BTS received a nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for their all-English song Dynamite, the second in a row. On the day of the awards show (and the days leading up to it) fans of BTS, which also performed at the event, dominated social media conversation about the gala. While BTS did not come out on top of the Grammys, according to Twitter data, they were the most tweeted about artist or group at the event – ahead of rising star Olivia Rodrigo, who received three awards.

BTS also starred in the most shared tweets of the night. Some were published from their official profile and others that were not uploaded by them were successful, simply because the seven idols appeared in the posts, being shared for example by entertainment publications E! News and Entertainment Tonight.

South Korean content in general has become extremely popular in recent years, with South Korean series, K-dramas, also dominating conversation on Twitter well before Netflix produced Squid Game and Parasite won the Oscar for best film. The so-called “Korean wave,” 한류 (hallyu, in Korean), is gaining more and more presence in global and Spanish culture.

Kim Yeon-Jeong suggests Twitter was a logical place for this wave to gather pace, because on that platform “fans can find out what is happening in the world of K-pop in a very simple way.”

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