This poster aims to begin thinking through the strategies of anonymity, anti-surveillance, and body substitution/”absenting” that emerged from the BTS ARMY (and other K-pop fandoms) during the Black Lives Matter protests of May and June 2020. I want to examine these strategies as techniques of specifically “digital” protest that leverage new media technology against state and police surveillance on a grassroots fandom level. More specifically, I am interested in the turn away from paradigms of individuality, visibility, and clarity of message as a baseline for activism towards strategies of anonymity, invisibility, and spam and/or signal jamming instead. This is just the beginning of a larger project on this topic, but I am most interested in thoughts about the political potential that inheres in non-individualistic–and even non-human– metaphors: the swarm, the hivemind, “bots,” and, of course, the ARMY. Any thoughts and feedback is welcome!
It will be my contention for this poster that the activism on display in K-pop’s various online fan spaces this year invites a consideration of strategies of invisibility, obscurity, and illegibility as modes of digital protest. In this vein, I will briefly examine a few cases from the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 that highlight anonymity, body substitution, and body-absence as techniques for the political work of fans in the BTS ARMY and broader K-pop communities online. These strategies rely not just on redirecting or reorienting our social sight, as a protestor in the street might, but obscuring it entirely, replacing the bodies that are usually available to the social gaze with opaque or misleading ones.
I am currently a PhD student in English at UCLA, and so my background is primarily in literary and cultural studies. I therefore approach this topic from a humanist’s perspective and rely in large part on my training in close-reading texts (and media objects) to make my arguments. I am interested in situating this particular conversation within the overlap/gaps between the fields of digital media, critical race studies, and fan studies.
Part One: On Virtual Protest
The first technique to which I want to talk about has been a practice of the BTS and other K-pop fan communities for years: using an image of a K-pop idol as one’s public profile picture on social media. While not necessarily always motivated by a conscious desire for secrecy or anonymity, a majority of profile pictures of accounts in the BTS ARMY Twitter sphere feature an image of a BTS member rather than images of fans themselves. I am interested in this preference for anonymity, however, for the way it lends itself to strategies of anti-surveillance, particularly against mechanisms of state surveillance. Consider, for instance, the role this anonymous logic played in the protest work K-pop fans did in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. On March 30, 2020, the Dallas Police Department asked users to submit “video of illegal activity from the protests” to their iWatchDallas app, an app intended to facilitate a grassroots, citizen-driven arm of police surveillance. Yet, soon after the tweet posted, fans took to mass-inundating both the tweet and the app with videos of K-pop idols instead:
Less than a day later, overwhelmed by a global influx of videos to an app designed for local use, the iWatch app crashed (the Dallas Police Department sent out a tweet to this effect on May 31: “Due to technical difficulties [the] iWatch Dallas app will be down temporarily”). As the screenshot above can attest, fans bombarded the department with clips of K-pop music videos (the one featured in the screenshot, for instance, is from Seventeen’s “Don’t Wanna Cry”), as well as their own self-edited “fancams” of stage performances by various idols. The digital spam of these clips and videos worked, in effect, to protect the protestors in Dallas from police retribution or arrest and disrupted the technology with which the Dallas police sought to target them in the first place. In short, fans took the Dallas Police Department’s reassurance, “You can remain anonymous,” and flipped its logic of the unseen citizen reporter into one that upheld instead the anonymity of both the protestors on the ground and the fans who deliberately interfered with police surveillance by “reporting” falsely. The added layer of non-identifying avatars in most of the fan profiles participating in this anti-surveillance effort protected the K-pop fans in question from immediate or easy retribution. Hence, K-pop fans went a step beyond the oft-spread demand for media and citizen journalists to blur the faces of protestors by replacing the figure of the protestor entirely with that of the idol. This replacement, I argue, operated as an act of body-substitution, wherein the vulnerable body of the political protestor was strategically replaced by the celebrity-body of the Korean idol. The idol, visually overexposed to the point of saturation in their capacity as a global star, possesses a body widely available and already known—and is, as a result, devoid of specific or private information. Its functional uselessness in contexts of state-driven surveillance makes it a paradoxically useful decoy to mask the identity of those who seek to interfere with these surveillance systems.
As a second example, I recall the semi-filled (and thus semi-failed) Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20, 2020. Rather than showcasing a strategy of body-substitution, as the Dallas police app spamming does, the Tulsa rally demonstrates instead one of body-absence. The images circulated by media outlets on the day after the rally displayed, relentlessly, sections of empty blue seats in the venue: The New York Times, for instance, noted that the BOK Center saw a mere 6,200 ticketed attendees on the day of the rally, far below the venue’s maximum capacity of 19,000. While the factors responsible for this attendance go beyond K-pop-fan interference alone, fans played their part in the numbers. Their strategy was one premised on absence: roughly a week before the event, hundreds of K-pop fans (alongside users of the social media app, TikTok, who co-led the initiative) registered en-masse for tickets to Trump’s rally with no plans of actually showing up. While the act of reserving a ticket did not equate to reserving an individual seat (Trump’s rallies largely work on a first-come, first-serve seating system), the high number of false reservations effectively fed false data to the Trump team. The uselessness of the data fed to Trump’s team from the false reservations, combined with the physical absence of bodies at the rally, came together to execute a plan that obstructed the campaign in not only literal ways but algorithmic ones: a darkening, so to speak, of data-sight. Information ceased, in this situation, to represent Trump’s potential voter base in transparent or reliable ways. What’s more, the absence of bodies refused even the most basic demographic information that could have been gleaned or acquired in person. Hence, in the act of appropriating the algorithm to their own ends, fans effectively re-coded it to fail the white hegemonic interests it normally serves. The “data blackout” achieved in this moment, in fact, recalls the very failure of technology that attends the event of a literal blackout. Only here, the resulting darkness, or darkening, must be understood not as a loss but as a minoritarian opacity: a frustration of the white-technologized gaze.
Part Two: Decoupling the “Individual” from Protest
What, then, are the stakes of the strategies of protest outlined above? I argue that techniques that rely on the obscuring, blurring, or absenting of identifiable bodies and individuals invite a consideration of the political potential that inheres in non-individualistic modes of action. By this I do not mean the democratic idea of “collectivity” that undergirds our existing paradigms of political action, such as petition signing, election voting, donations, and protests. Such modes of collectivity, despite their communal nature, nonetheless rely on the paradigm of the expressive individual. That is, the mass of signatures on a petition, or donations to a cause, or votes for a candidate, or bodies in the street acquires power from the combined force of otherwise-isolated individuals coming together to join their expressive voices toward a common goal. It is a model that relies on clarity: in short, on being seen and being heard. In contrast to this model, the proclivity for anonymity, absence, and opacity in the BTS ARMY and other K-pop fan communities this past year arguably represents a turn away from “individuality” as the foundation for protest. Instead of relying on paradigms of visibility, individuation, and clarity of message, the strategies on display in these digital fan spaces look more like spam or signal-jamming.
The fancam attacks on police surveillance apps work, in other words, not because they advance a legible counter-message on behalf of the protestors, or even of Black Lives Matter, but because they interrupt state surveillance by jamming the technological system it relies on. Similarly, takeovers of white supremacist hashtags on Twitter by K-pop fans do not necessarily offer any clear condemnation or counterargument to white supremacist talking points. Rather, they operate like spam, drowning out the hashtag’s original message in favor of more “useless” videos of dancing idols and fan-edited performances. This opting for noise over signal, for obscurity over clarity, removes the expressive individual—indeed, removes meaningful expressivity itself—from the political work accomplished in these moments. Interestingly, this absence of “message” has also made these techniques the target of criticism as well, with some fans pointing out that fancams do not technically “do” anything—and certainly don’t advance any agenda outside of K-pop’s own digital marketing. Yet, it would appear that the very “uselessness” of these fancams, the political vacancy of their content, emerges as a strategy in its own right. In fact, it is my belief that this failure to express any positive content, and the removal of the individual from political protest more broadly, carries its own political possibilities.
The Questions That Remain
I want to end then on what I hope is a provocative question (or at least an interesting one). What alternatives has our focus on “the individual” in political action blinded us from seeing? After all, the Western humanist and democratic ideal of “the individual” which undergirds our current system of democracy has been a flawed political foundation from the start. You need only look to the marginalized groups who have been historically excluded from its designated category of being—and who fought, over many years, for their inclusion—to see that the individual-as-paradigm is not the most radical or inclusive starting point for political change. Instead, I am interested in alternative metaphors, or models, of non-individualistic organized power: the swarm, the hivemind, “bots,” and—of course—the ARMY.
What do these non-human and the non-individualistic metaphors offer to our political formulations that democratic vocabularies of collective power cannot? Separately, what do we do with the fact that there is slippage between these terms and vocabularies of racist dehumanization? I know I was not the only one, for instance, to see rightwing Twitter levy attacks against the “Chinese bots” posting fancams and infiltrating hashtags. How does something like the robot both offer us a way outside of the Western individual while also re-inscribing its racist and Orientalized language of power?
So! Given all of that I am interested in hearing from you! Any of the below is welcome:
1) any thoughts or feedback! I’d love to hear more about any points I raised, since this is a very new project
2) if you have or know of any sources that you think might be helpful to this discussion! Any books or articles that look at political action and protest
3) even more specifically, I would LOVE to hear about any sources that deal with swarms, hiveminds, insect-organization, robots, bots, spam, or signal-jamming. This can draw from ecocriticism, biology, or new media/internet studies!
4) if you have questions about English/humanities grad school or just want to commiserate and bond over being in grad school haha
~~~hit me up on Discord during my Q&A or DM me at @a_priyd on Twitter!~~~ thank you ARMY <3
About the Author
Andrea is a 4th year PhD student in English at UCLA. Her research exists at the intersection of new media, race, aesthetics, and digital fandom. She has an article currently in the works on #BlackOutBTS, race, and self-display in the BTS ARMY, which she presented at the BTS Conference earlier this year.