Posted: November 8th, 2023
The BTS Army and the Use of Fandom as Activism
The BTS Army and the Use of Fandom as Activism
With the emergence of Korean pop ‘K-pop,’ America’s domination of global pop culture came to a close. There is no bigger evidence of this paradigm shift than BTS, whose seven members have been able to rise to global fame. The group has established a massive following through social media, building a fandom that calls itself the ‘ARMY.’ However, unlike conventional fan bases, K-pop’s participatory culture extends beyond the consumption of music. BTS and the Army use social media tags, charity, and other forms of philanthropy to highlight the power of fandom when applied to activism. By donating more than $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement and shutting down the social media pages of the Dallas Police Department, K-pop fans showed that they are a legitimate force for change. While fandoms being instrumental in online activism is not surprising, BTS’s strategic infrastructure, level of organization, and emphasis on a participatory culture have been more effective in using fandoms to drive contemporary socio-political change.
Who is the BTS Army?
Due to their massive size and influence, fandoms are often associated with toxic negative behaviours. Past media attention has been put on how different fan bases engage in binge drinking, drug abuse, bullying, and sexual promiscuity (Park et al., 2021). However, fandoms are also sources of positive socio-political change. The different groups are known for providing artists and communities with donations and other forms of support. BTS’s Army is elevating this approach to fandom functionality. The Army is the fandom for BTS, a seven-member group from South Korea that emerged in 2013 (Park et al., 2021). The acronym stands for ‘Adorable Representative M.C for Youth,’ which, when translated to English, means ‘bulletproof scouts’ (Low, 2019). Therefore, the Army stands to shield the boyband.
The size, devotion, and diversity of BTS’s fandom have helped establish a solid reputation for the group online. As a result, a common approach to making an issue go viral online is by making K-pop Twitter aware of it (Low, 2019). By not being shy to talk about social issues, BTS has been able to transform its Army into a workforce that commits to doing good. The seven-member group has altered K-pop’s approach to activism, making the fandom avoid the stereotypes and invalidation of feminized fan bases. As a result, the entire K-pop culture has become synonymous with activism as part of its cultural image and reputation. K-pop’s activism raises questions for research on fan activism as it highlights the understudied influence of participatory culture in the digital age.
The Army as Social Activism
The Army is examined as a tribe with a level of organization and shared values that no other fandom has been able to achieve in the past. According to Park et al. (2021), the fan base has four dimensions: transnational locality, non-social sociability, digital intimacy, and organizing without an organization. The statement informs on how K-pop stands apart from other fan bases because of its mobilization and unparalleled level of organization. In his definition of mass action (Williams, 1976) concluded that masses often originate from the social conditions surrounding revolutionary intellectuals and not collectively from the people. These individuals perceive themselves as the masses, putting effort into using the larger group as instruments for change. BTS has been successful in using its fandom as masses by deepening the ties shared among members.
The Use of Online Translation Accounts to Boost Participation
BTS runs one of the world’s largest translation accounts. Jiye Kim, one of the group members, has over 270000 followers on his Twitter accounts which he uses to translate BTS’s lyrics, video content, and social messages (Moon, 2020). The translation account exemplifies how the Army deepens its shared understanding among group members and how BTS reaches and engages new audiences. The approach goes against Karl Marx’s definition of popular culture as a commodity. The philosopher stated that commodities are the products of labour of private individuals who carry out their work independently (Marx, 1972). The sum total of the private contributions forms the aggregate output of society. Marx hypothesized that the utility of popular culture lies in its commodification, which relies on the efforts of private individuals. The Army increases its utility by attracting the contributions of people, including non-Koreans. The translation accounts deepen the ties between members irrespective of their locality, facilitating their participation in common social issues.
The Power of the Hashtag
Data-based accounts committed to everything BTS, including calling for fans to vote, has been instrumental to the Army fandom. Such online accounts focus on establishing and trending BTS-related hashtags, improving the group’s online presence and influence. For instance, in 2020, a fan account named ‘One in an Army’ created the hashtag #Matchamillion after BTS donated one million dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement (Madden, 2020). The trending hashtag saw thousands of fans participating in the conversation and donating to the same movement. The Army had been on an online campaign just a week before to counter racist hashtags, such as #AllLivesMatter and #WhiteLivesMatter (Madden, 2020). The digital campaign led to the Army disrupting the Dallas Police Department’s iWatch app. One of the BTS fans had requested group members to spam the application with videos of illegal activities from the Black Lives Matter protests (Madden, 2020). The flurry of video responses crashed the application.
Critics might argue the server jamming of the police app is unwarranted, but it is essential to remember that fandoms are not A-political. At the time, the Army represented the first brush with an organized community for many protesters (Park et al., 2021). Fan bases are not always progressive, warm, or inclusive because one cannot deny the politicized attributes of the fans. For instance, Army members neglected to post personal messages to jump on the Black Lives Matter tag to bolster BTS’ message. The fandom created an opportunity for such individuals to participate, which is why they have a history of engaging people with ideologies that resist heteronormativity and patriarchy (Springham, 2020). Therefore, the Army has been highly effective in providing people access to an organized community that is not fearful of discussing racial politics and other frowned-upon social issues. The participatory culture disrupts the status quo online through micro inter-personal interactions.
Participation through Non-Governmental Collaborations
The Army’s ability to collaborate with humanitarian organizations displays the unrivalled level of organization in the fandom. Low (2019) claims that the Army has been effective in its social campaigns because its level of organization is the same as that of an institution. In November 2017, BTS partnered with UNICEF to launch the ‘Love Myself’ campaign, which promotes self-love and welfare for children (Madden, 2020). The partnership aligns with Marx’s (1972) definition of the masses in popular culture because it is the initial effort of the BTS members to partner with UNICEF that led to global participation by the Army. The fandom was able to raise $1.4 million within the same month (Madden, 2020). The funds were used to establish various educational programs that raise awareness of the plight of vulnerable children. The Army’s contributions prompted UNICEF to invite the BTS members to the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly. Such an act is a prime example of the Army elevating its founders to a global audience in tackling current social issues.
Importance of Structure in Effective Participation
The Army’s work with non-government organizations shows how a good structure and organization in fandoms can drive socio-political change. Despite its large size, each Army member can intuitively identify how best they can contribute to the overall goal because of diverse backgrounds and an optimal flow of information (Low, 2019). For instance, the translation accounts act as intermediaries between BTS and its fandom. However, more interesting is how this fandom can cast a light on social issues better than BTS because of its structure. The Army comprises lawyers, educators, authors, artists, graphic designers, teenagers, and marketers, among many others contributing to the Army’s structure. BTS members tend to draw attention to particular issues but do not take stances. The Army gets to tackle the BTS-highlighted social problems through its diverse members. Such a structure aligns with Karl Marx’s (1972) way of change, where a community of free individuals carries out the work started by private individuals through a shared means of production.
While global society might have an impulse to pass off the Army as crazy Korean energy, systems do change in the face of constant public pressure. Investigating the Army helps build a better understanding of the complexities, barriers, and enablers of successful collaborative efforts of a fandom. Despite not having a hierarchical structure, the Army is heavily guided by distributed pillar accounts, such as the translation accounts, which act as the backbone of the fandom. Such a distributed network is highly effective in organization and mobilization, explaining how an informal group can partner with established humanitarian organizations. The Army also has some unique characteristics that contribute to the group’s success, such as its members’ diverse professionalism. Trust and companionship from the shared values counter any negatives associated with the group’s composition, providing the psychological safety necessary for group efficacy. Further research should help determine if other online fandoms share the same characteristics. Nevertheless, at the minimum, BTS and the Army have revolutionized fandom activism in the 21st century.
Park, S. Y., Santero, N., Kaneshiro, B. & Lee, J. H. (2021). Armed in Army: A case study of how BTS fans successfully collaborated for Black Lives Matter. ACM: Association for Computing Machinery, 1-14.
Marx, K. (1972). Chapter 8: The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof. In The Marx-Engels Reader (ed). W.W. Norton & Co, pp. 90-98.
Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Fontana.
Low, L. (2019, July 2). How BTS inspires the Army to do good. Medium, https://medium.com/bulletproof/how-bts-inspires-their-army-to-do-good-229800ff17a4
Madden, E. (2020, June 11). The BTS Army and the transformative power of fandom as activism. The Ringer, https://www.theringer.com/music/2020/6/11/21287283/bts-army-black-lives-matter-fandom-activism
Springham, L. (2020, August 3). BTS Army. Flow Journal, https://www.flowjournal.org/2020/08/its-army-versus-the-army/
Moon, K. (2020, November 18). Inside the BTS Army, the devoted fandom with an unrivalled level of organization. TIME, https://time.com/5912998/bts-army/
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