When K-pop stans and other fans attack journalists online

Purple S. Romero

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When K-pop stans and other fans attack journalists online
While there are stans who can distinguish legitimate, constructive criticism from mere 'hating,' some can't and attack the messenger

Who goes after journalists for critical reporting? Politicians who are usually from authoritarian governments and their rabid supporters. Tycoons and companies which have been accused of bribery and unethical practices. And with the advent of social media and the anonymity it offers, a subset or some members of fandoms from various interests who have anointed certain celebrities with a god-like status and have shunned contrarian views, even if these contribute to important discourses on society, art, women’s rights, and responses to systemic problems such as racism.  

From Star Wars to sports to K-pop, fandoms and stanning have conceived their own rhythm and ruckus, birthing a culture that could be humanitarian and politically progressive at its best and malevolent at its extreme worst.

The worst has included contributing to the problem of cyberbullying, which has forced celebrities themselves to leave the world of social media, and has forced journalists to suffer from another layer of harassment. 

Irresponsible journalism ≠ critical reporting 

Raphael Rashid, a freelance journalist who reports about South Korea, said he has been “used to the abuse now” from some fans. He said it began after he wrote an article “that wasn’t on the most positive of topics” about BTS (Bangtan Boys, but has since also been known as Beyond The Scene), a South Korean boyband whose global popularity and impact has been compared to Beatlemania in the 1960s. 

“The worst I’ve been told is to die or that someone is coming to kill me,” he said in an online interview via Twitter on June 22.

Rashid isn’t the only one. In an article published on Medium on June 18, he wrote that in Seoul, there’s already a “running joke” among foreign journalists not to report on K-pop as this may incur the wrath of some K-pop fans, even if these reports were done “with the best of intentions.”

There is after all, a big difference between irresponsible journalism and critical reporting – the former includes having some reporters going out of their way to invade the privacy of public figures, which includes K-pop stars, in the name of getting scoops. Some also resort to sensationalized reporting, of publishing information sans any verification and those that grossly disgerard context as well as historical and cultural nuances. 

This deserves correction and getting called out, while the latter should be taken as the press just doing its job or the very function that it’s supposed to serve – one that distinguishes it from mere public relations and propaganda. 

Even if journalists do the latter, however, they could be attacked. And the attacks, Rashid wrote, could be worse for women. 

He cited the case of Juwon Park, another journalist based in Seoul. Park raised a question on why BTS worked with Jung Bobby, who is now facing charges of sexual assault. It’s an issue that even BTS fans themselves, called ARMY, have discussed and acknowledged, with some saying that it may not be the best decision to include a song he produced in BTS’ latest album Proof, even if the track was done prior to the emergence of such allegations. 

Park still received vitriol, however, with some of them sexist and misogynistic. Others went as far as asking her news organization to fire her.  

Cyberbullying is not limited to just some members of a particular K-pop fandom however, or to K-pop, even. In 2020, some Swifties, or fans of American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, doxxed and harassed music critic Jillian Mapes after she gave Swift’s album Folklore a rating of 8 out of 10. Prior to that, fans of another American singer-songwriter, Lana del Rey, attacked music critic Ann Powers of NPR after the artist tweeted her disagreement with Powers’ review of her album Norman Fucking Rockwell.

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Solutions are not easy, but they’re there 

Why is there a proclivity for some stans to silence and discourage critical questioning, reporting, and analyses about the personalities they support? Experts point to an amalgam of factors. 

One, there’s the anonymity granted by social media. It helps builds communities, but this could be a “double-edged sword,” according to Prof. David Schmid, a faculty expert on pop culture at the University of Buffalo. 

“The sense of community generated by social media can be a double-edged sword. That sense of being connected with others is usually a positive, but when that community gangs up on someone else, that’s when the problems start. Because we’re not physically facing the object of our bullying on social media, I think it can a) be easier to bully, because the target is ‘invisible’ in a way, and b) be more difficult to see or understand that damaging and traumatic impact of such bullying,” he said in an email on June 26. 

When the signal also comes from the celebrities themselves, these communities are galvanized to go on the offensive, as seen in the case of Lana del Rey. If celebrities, however, could do the exact opposite and tell their fans to engage in a more civil way, chances are they will listen. 

“There’s an old saying, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ and I think this applies perfectly to both K-pop and other idols. They need to recognize the influence they have over their fans and do much more than they currently do to make sure that influence is being used in a positive manner. Why doesn’t this happen? I think because the idols themselves recognize how fickle their fans can be and so they don’t want to risk antagonizing them!” Schmid said. 

Rashid said that labels must also take a stand against it. 

“As with any forms of fanaticism, I don’t think we can ever fully mitigate or stop the cyberbullying. But I think we should at least address the issue. Just like football clubs condemning hooliganism, I think labels condemning cyberbullying is long overdue, and [they] need to take a stand. Let’s be clear: the labels are very well aware of the problem, but continue to remain silent. Artists too should be free to address these issues.”

While labels or the celebrities themselves have yet to express their views on this matter, the good news is some fandoms have already acknowledged that there is a problem of cyberbullying instigated by some of their members. Fandoms are not, after all, homogeneous, and while some members of the fandom could be problematic, there are those who know that there is a better way of responding to reports and views that could be critical of the personalities they support. These initiatives try to inspire and help other fans adopt this mindset. 

An example is Hallyu Wednesdays, an initiative developed by some Filipino ARMYs in September 2021. 

“We do address it in a more indirect way by careful messaging and modeling behavior. In our regular Wednesday decompression sessions, for example, we have made the commitment to keep the community a safe space for all, despite differences in opinions that occasionally come up. We do not tolerate bullying, disrespectful, rude, and/or hateful language, and/or behavior. Mental health is one of the key pillars of Hallyu Wednesdays; hence, our group sessions, in particular, aim to help participants understand themselves by making psychoeducation easier to understand through BTS songs and themes. This helps for healthier emotional regulation and expression in ways that are kind not only to themselves but to others as well,” its founders Yanna Garcia, MB Carandang, and Jen Rubio told Rappler over Facebook on June 22. 

ARMY Bayanihan, which has also held voter education sessions for the elections last May and has over 6,500 followers on Twitter, said they also do not condone any form of cyberbullying.

“We, ARMY Bayanihan, do not take part in cyberbullying and its other forms. We constantly remind our members to not engage in any issues that involve BTS and other fandom wars to promote a healthy stanning with our idols. Moreover, we are fully aware that our co-ARMYs would attack those who criticize BTS which resulted in the cancellation culture. However, on a personal note, we do believe and emphasize in our team that, “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say it.”

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A point of reflection for journalists, too 

Then of course, there is also the question of the role of the media itself, particularly of members of the press. Journalists could both defend press freedom and call for the protection of other journalists while shining a light on practices that could raise ethical concerns. 

An example of this would be the case of Nicki Minaj. While the rapper has in different instances reportedly incited her fans, called the Barbz, to attack others, the doxxing and harassment that journalist Sharlene Rampersand experienced from them invited a scrutiny both of the behavior of the artist, of the fandom, and the journalist herself. 

Minaj posted Rampersand’s contact details on Instagram after the reporter from Trinidad and Tobago tried to interview the artist’s relatives, following remarks from Minaj that a cousin’s friend would rather not be vaccinated as it supposedly made him impotent, a claim that has been debunked by health experts. 

The Media Association of T&T assailed the doxxing, saying that “Nicki Minaj’s celebrity gangsterism towards Guardian Media Ltd’s (GML) reporter, Sharlene Rampersad, is textbook cyberbullying and intimidation of a free press in a young democracy.”

It however also recognized that the method undertaken by the journalist herself is far from ideal, as Rampersand allegedly told Minaj’s relatives that CNN will also interview them and reveal their information, something she said she will not do. They added, however, that the doxxing is unwarranted. 

“While Ms. Minaj may be justified in calling for scrutiny of the journalist’s methods — that is, stoking the fears of an ordinary citizen caught, through no action of his own, in the maelstrom of an international story — the rapper’s doxxing and cussing are extreme reactions that should concern those closest to her,” the organization said in an article in The Guardian Media. 

This case illustrates a point for self-reflection and illumines the need for journalists to also be cognizant of other ethical quandaries. 

When journalists, for one, who are also fans themselves report about the personalities they support, could this pose a potential conflict of interest? 

For Carolyn Hinds, a film critic, the intersecting of these worlds could be problematic. “I cannot go as a film journalist and say I stan only one filmmaker,” she said. Hinds participated in a Twitter space organized by Rashid on June 21 to tackle the problem of some K-pop stans cyberbullying journalists. Rappler reached out to her after the said space, where she gave us permission on June 30 to reference or quote some of the points she raised. 

Hinds herself has been cyberbullied. She was targeted after she spoke of cultural appropriation following the release of J-Hope’s song “Chicken Noodle Soup” and when she criticized the sampling of a speech from mass murderer Jim Jones in a song by Suga. Both Suga and J-Hope are members of BTS. Big Hit, their management company, has since apologized for the incident involving the speech of Jim Jones, but even with the company’s recognition that the sampling was egregious, Hinds, a black woman based in Toronto, was attacked with racist remarks.

But it’s not just the problem of conflict of interest. There is also the real risk that if journalists report critically on the artists, the fandom, or the label, they may lose access to them. It’s a difficult dilemma. Hinds said this should not limit or define what journalists should report on or not, however. 

“You can’t call yourself a journalist if your coverage is going to be skewed to pander because you don’t want to lose access.”

 As journalists and newsrooms study how best to navigate this tricky situation, one thing that the media could do is to keep the conversation going.  

“I think the best response to the cyberbullying of journalists is being public about the abuse. Call out the bullies and call out the idols for not doing enough to discourage this kind of behavior,” Schmid said. 

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‘Stan is not a dirty word’

Hannah Ewens, author of Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture, said in a 2019 article that stan should not be a “dirty word.” Being one, after all, stems from its own unique sense of belonging, she wrote, “of feeling part of something bigger than yourself.”

The word “stan” conjures its own attitudes and approaches – it initially came from Eminem’s song with the same title, released in 2000. The song described a fan with stalkerish, dangerous behavior, but it has since changed to simply mean the act of liking or supporting certain personalities and, as others would posit, have been conflated with that of being a fan. 

It is not indeed a dirty word and there is nothing inherently wrong with it. But music culture, like any other culture, evolves, and it bears asking what direction is it now headed to and how fandoms, social media, the artists themselves, and the people who write about them could contribute to making it more a robust, diverse, and safer sphere, where people could explore its complex facets without the fear of being intimidated into silence. – Rappler.com

*For purposes of transparency, this journalist, in her personal capacity, has participated and held voter education discussions for K-pop fandoms. She has also been a fan of Korean music since 2009.

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