K-Pop Comes to Philippine Politics

The 2022 elections: K-Pop fans v. Trolls 

By: Purple Romero

On her 21st birthday, a Filipina fan of K-Pop groups BTS and Mamamoo who gave her name as Len signed up to volunteer for a group formed on the same day – called “KPOP STANS 4 LENI” to campaign for presidential contender Maria Leonor ‘Leni’ Robredo.

“I volunteered because today is my birthday and Leni has given me a gift by running,” she said. “I want to help make a change to the country, judging from the presidential candidates, Leni is the best candidate compared to everyone else.” Robredo is up against a formidable scrum of contenders including Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., hugely popular boxer Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Senator Panfilo Lacson, and 93 others of varying gravitas.

She and the 365-odd other members of KPOP STANS FOR LENI have thus joined a curious international nexus of politics and Korean pop music. If that sounds strange, it is a phenomenon that has extended as far as Kansas City in the United States, where on June 20, 2020, thousands of K-Pop fans famously disrupted a rally by President Donald Trump by reserving seats at the event and leaving the seats empty, ruining the president’s biggest post-Covid-19 rally and outraging him against his campaign staff. One of the best-known K-Pop controversies — starring Taiwanese member Chou Tzuyu of South Korean K-Pop girl group TWICE — highlighted the “One China” conflict between mainland China and Taiwan, setting off a furor in China

It is uncertain how K-Pop and politics met. But these “stans,” as ardent K-pop fans are known, number in the millions for different groups, both in the US and beyond, now including the Philippines, in numbers big enough to catch the attention of publications like Time Magazine and Wired. With tens of thousands of Koreans living and working in the Philippines, and hundreds of thousands – until Covid-19 – coming for extended stays, K-Pop has made the island nation home.

A working student and a freelance graphic designer and writer, Len said she can help contribute to the group by creating publicity materials. She is just one of the volunteers who joined the call of KPOP STANS 4 LENI, which was formed on Oct.7, the day Robredo announced she would run for president in national elections due in 2022.

K-pop, which emerged from Korea in the mid-1990s, is peculiarly oriented toward this kind of politicking because from the start it explicitly relied on the internet and social media and the cultivation of fandom, social scientists say.

“Why don’t we utilize that skill [in making things trend], our own platforms as K-Pop stans to promote a candidate who we know will uphold our principles?” asked a stan who gave her name as Ai.

The group, she said, will thus employ tried-and-tested tricks in promoting their idols -- they plan a cup sleeves event, which fans use to celebrate the birthdays or accomplishments of their favorite artists by having their faces printed on designed sleeves placed on drinks at selected cafe venues. They also intend to make photo cards and edit fancams, the tools that have helped catapult their idols to the top of the trending lists.

Aside from this, however, KPOP STANS 4, Len says, also aims to counter disinformation on TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter, which they said have been a hotbed of “fake news.”

Majo, one of those who founded the group, said this came in the form of “either historical revisionism, or all these superlatives, which are but a joke time,” pertaining to how TikTok videos, for one, undermined the abuses and human rights violations committed under martial law during the term of then-president Ferdinand Marcos, while also praising the period of his rule as the country’s “Golden Years.”

On October 12, the group called for mass exposure of so-called troll accounts which post disinformation. Another K-Pop stan, meanwhile, proposed that fans counter the spread of disinformation by also reporting accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

A young woman nicknamed Mayora, a pseudonym meaning female mayor, a fan of the K-Pop girl groups Girls’ Generation and Red Velvet, said that if fans can block and report accounts which troll and lambast their idols, then they can also do the same to reduce election-related disinformation.

“K-Pop fans dedicate their time protecting their idols by reporting fake and hate tweets - that made me realize that maybe, with enough encouragement and the right avenue, we could help win the fight against disinformation,” she said. She has helped to organize voter education discussions among various K-Pop fandoms.

Tricky balance

Using KPOP fandoms as campaign vehicles can be contentious, however. Not every K-Pop fan is comfortable with having online spaces originally created for stanning such as accounts on Twitter being used as platforms for discussing politics.

“There are some fans who want to just stan the groups just for fun but of course there are fans who turn everything political. The sad part is K-Pop serves as a form of respite for some, but they have been labeled as “privileged," which hurts since politics is toxic and very stressful. Some are making political awareness and their stance as their personality already,” she explained.

It’s a tricky balance. ARMY BAYANIHAN, a stan account for Filipino fans of the global phenomenon BTS, initially said in June they wouldn’t back any political candidate or group when they urged ARMYs to register for the 2022 elections. But when Robredo filed as an independent contender, they changed their profile photo on Twitter to what looked like a pink lightstick, Robredo’s campaign color, a departure from the yellow motif for her 2016 campaign as a Liberal Party candidate.

The stan account group, which has over 6,000 followers, added that their support for Robredo is more visible in their individual personal accounts. ARMY BAYANIHAN is composed of a core group of young professionals in their 20s, while they have volunteers who are in their 40s too. Another Army stan account, Project0613PH, also believes that endorsements and promotions of certain candidates can be done more on an individual basis.

The nuanced show of support for political candidates and the circumspect navigating that come with it stem not just from the fact that some stans are more comfortable with keeping online fan accounts as platforms for discussing the activities and songs of their idols, but also from the consideration that they do not want politics per se to be linked with their idols.

Noelle Duterte, niece of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte but a vocal supporter of Robredo, is an ARMY who knows the power and capacity of stans like her to mobilize for causes which BTS also support too. Partisan politics, however, she said, is where they draw the line.

“For the most part, ARMYs tend to stay away from partisan politics, and support universal advocacies such as human rights and gender equality, ending poverty, the climate crisis, even encouraging vaccinations like JHope did at the UN. Not sure how being ARMY can be helpful in the PH elections, especially since anything ARMYs do will eventually reflect on BTS. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would hurt BTS,” she told Vice in a Facebook private message on Oct. 2.

What is more fitting, she believes, can be voter education, as it’s more aligned with the stance of BTS too.

“I think voter education — why it’s important and what this means for the country’s future — is appropriate as an advocacy. Participating in civic activities is in line with the BTS message of being a voice for their generation.”

Both Project0613PH and KPOP Stans 4 LENI have gotten some negative reactions - when Project0163PH’s post about voter registration was retweeted by Jose Manuel ‘Chel’ Diokno, a former senatorial candidate under the Liberal Party (he’s running again in 2022), they were accused of being “used” by the candidate. “How much were you paid to do this?” some netizens asked.

But the K-Pop stans said these accusations and criticisms won’t stop them. “I am a KPOP fan but I am also a Filipino citzen,” Aila from KPOP STANS 4 LENI said. “Why can’t we use this as a platform to actually care about our country?”

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