Stop Celebrating Stan Culture. It’s Toxic.

Online fandoms have proved they can achieve positive change - but more frequently, they perpetuate the worst parts of online culture.

stan online culture toxic bts photo

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On June 1, 2020, a new trend rippled through the K-pop stan community on Twitter.

Two users, both with less than three thousand followers each, began encouraging their fellow stans to flood the Dallas Police Department’s “snitch cam” — an app designed for citizens to report petty crime — with “fancams”, homemade edits of their favourite K-pop stars.

Within hours, the snitch cam was so clogged with videos that it was taken down. Soon afterwards, the app popped back up. So the stans did the same thing again. “KEEP SPAMMING,” one user Tweeted. “IT’S WORKING.”

Days later, at the cajoling of users on “mainstream” Twitter,  K-pop stans replicated the trick by flooding the ‘blue lives matter’ hashtag with more fancams. The stans were on a roll. Soon after that, in conjunction with teens on TikTok, stans reserved seats for Donald Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma rally that they never planned to use, leading to embarrassment for the President and his supporters when the venue turned out to be half-empty.

It would be wrong to say that this political bent to the behaviour of stans was new. Fans of the South Korean pop group BTS, so-called members of the BTS ARMY, will frequently donate to charity — a recent Vice article estimates that they have donated to 630 charities worldwide over the years. And these are not just apolitical causes, either; many of the ARMY’s preferred charities support LGBTIQ youth, for instance.

What has been new, however, is the reaction such behaviour has received in the press and in mainstream cultural circles (including this very website, which published positive stories on all of these incidents). Suddenly, stans have become the heroes of this dark and dangerous year, the subject of thousands of memes praising them for their righteous support of important causes. “Never underestimate the power of K-pop Twitter and a good fancam,” reported PopBuzz, delightedly.

And let us be clear: such recent actions are good. Donating widely to charities and boosting information about the Black Lives Matter movement are uncomplicated, unmixed blessings, the kind of inspirational causes that the internet should rally around more often.

But the problem arises when we ignore the history of modern standom, and how frequently stans have rallied themselves around other, much less admirable causes.

Too frequently in the past, stans have perpetuated the worst of cancel culture. They have made systemic issues into personal ones; attempted to solve complex problems by bullying individuals off Twitter, and tried to ruin people’s lives. They rarely demonstrate any understanding of forgiveness or personal transformation. They have been thin-skinned. They have shouted down anyone who has tried to attack their idols. And they have spread rumours and falsehoods.

That needs to be reckoned with. And such reckoning is long overdue.

What Makes Stans Different?

“Stan Twitter” is a catchall term. After all, that group in turn can be broken down into K-pop stans, and BTS stans, and Blackpink stans, and Harry Styles stans, and Taylor Swift stans, and so on, forever.

There are differences between each of these groups, of course; they talk, organise and interact in distinct ways. But what unites these communities is a similarity in their methods for responding to criticism, in their uncomplicated adoration for their idol (or idols) in question, and an acute understanding of their own power.

That latter fact is also what sets them apart from prior teenage subcultures. There have been pre-adolescent and adolescent fans of pop culture for as long as there has been pop culture. The Beatles had their own stans; so did Jimi Hendrix. Even Franz Liszt, the classical composer, had his clothes torn apart by his rabid followers whenever he appeared in public.

But, historically, such groups have been scattered. To connect with other Paul McCartney obsessives in the ’60s required sending a self-stamped envelope to an address you found in the back of a music magazine, and joining an expensive fan group.

Stans are self-referentially moblike.

The internet changed all that. These days, not only can stans meet and talk, they can also organise. And more than that, they can see the immediate, real-world reaction to their organisation. Which is intoxicating. And many stan cultures are intoxicated by it. Stans are obsessed with their own ability to get songs to chart, to flood competitions that rely on a popular vote. And, when necessary, to ruin the lives of literally anyone who writes a single wrong word about their idols.

When All-Time Low singer Alex Gaskarth criticised One Direction, he was told to kill himself. Taylor Swift fans sent Diplo so many abusive messages — a number concerning his children — that he was temporarily forced off socials. Late last year, when Lana Del Rey criticised NPR journalist Ann Powers, her stans followed their idol’s lead, flooding Powers’ social mentions.

And that’s the thing: all too often, the idols in question even play on this power. Justin Bieber, for instance, instructed his followers how they could game the charts and get his new record to position higher. Years earlier, Louis Tomlinson mobilised his fanbase against an Australian radio host he didn’t like by the name of Ash London. When London tried to explain herself, Tomlinson gleefully noted that she should “stay on private”. London eventually disappeared off social media for months, such was the vitriol directed towards her.

Even as recently as last year, Ariana Grande took to Twitter to give her opinion on “bloggers”. Roslyn Talusan, a journalist, called Grande out, noting that her comments were unnecessarily targeting an at-risk industry. In turn, Talusan was flooded with death and rape threats from Grande stans, who flooded her mentions and found her Instagram account.

When some pressure mounted on Grande to explicitly condemn the behaviour and call her fans off, the singer refused. instead, she dog-whistled them, suggesting that Talusan was getting as good as she was giving out.

“They’re just reacting with similar energy to what they’ve read honestly,” Grande wrote to the journalist. “Your tweets were hostile.”

It was a false equivalency, of course, implying that Talusan’s eloquent takedown was in any way comparable to literal death threats. But Grande didn’t seem to care. Though she reached out to Talusan privately, she has never called her followers into line for the way that they behaved. And why would she? She needs their rabid energy; their ability to get things done. To get her songs to chart. To take down her critics.

Dismissing any group that you disagree with as a “mob” has become a cliché these days, a lazy argumentation tactic designed to denigrate your intellectual enemies. But stans are self-referentially moblike. They fetishise their own ability to massively change the culture.

At the end of 2019, a Twitter user with the handle @jovanmhill shared an eight-word phrase: “I only fear BTS stans, no one else.” Now, in the BTS community, those words have become a slogan, a catchphrase that members of the ARMY use when they are awed by their own power.

The Toxic History of Stan Culture

Characterising stan culture’s use of that power as always landing on the side of righteousness is simply wrong, and the community’s reputation as “justice warriors”, correcting the racist issues of the system, is undermined whenever any of their idols fall on the wrong side of that line.

For instance, when Justin Bieber was accused of sexual assault, stan Twitter spent days “proving” his innocence and shouting down any who contested the Bieber account of events. When Taylor Swift jumped on the LGBTIQ bandwagon too little and too late with her video for ‘You Need To Calm Down’, any critic who attempted to reckon with her past political inaction was dogpiled.

Then there’s the unsettling history of cultural appropriation when it comes to South Korean groups like BTS. That band has a tendency to lift the style and imagery of Black culture, most notably in the music video for J-Hope’s ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’. Towards the end of that video, J-Hope can be seen clad in quasi-dreadlocks. When some fans rightfully called him out, others told such critics to “get a life”.

In turn, this attitude feeds into a reluctance these stan communities exhibit when it’s time to clean their own house of racism and bigotry. A largely unsigned petition calling for J-Hope to apologise for his cultural appropriation notes that some BTS fans hurled racial slurs at those they disagreed with.

A cursory search of Twitter shows that a number of K-pop stans are continuing to slur each other with the n-word, even as the community broadly is attempting to show solidarity with the black lives matter movement.

When The New York Times praised K-pop stans for being “especially perceptive of racial inequality”, writer Elizabeth de Luna reset the record. “K-pop fandom is racist asf [as fuck],” de Luna wrote.

History backs up such a claim. G-Dragon of South Korean pop group Big Bang donned blackface back in 2013, Yesung of Super Junior did it a few years later, while K-pop girl group Mamamoo performed in blackface as recently as 2017.

And each time, stans defended their heroes and shouted down anyone who tried to criticise them. One stan even tried to compare Yesung’s blackface with Chris Hemsworth wearing a wig in order to play Thor.

Then there’s the manner in which stans go about using their power, which almost always manifests itself as widespread criticism and harassment directed at one or two people at a time. Look at the treatment of rapper CupcakKe, chased off of Twitter with death threats and suggestions that she kill herself by BTS stans after she repeatedly described one of the members of that group as sexually attractive. “What a very disturbing fanbase,” the rapper wrote, just before she deactivated.

Which is not even to mention the case of Hollywood Reporter journalist Seth Abramovitch. A little over a year ago, Abramovitch published a profile about the group that focused on their “exoticism”, making much of the linguistic and cultural differences between the group and their Western fans.

When Abramovitch began to be bombarded with criticism, he doubled down and claimed that the group were unknown to “99.99 percent” of the population. That made things worse. En masse, stans began suggesting Abramovitch be fired.

Seth Abramovitch BTS stan Tweet

Indeed, threatening a critic’s employment has become one of the preferred strategies of stans over the last few years. When comedian Alex Williamson insulted BTS and the band’s fans, stans online sent out mass emails to his potential bookers urging them not to employ him.

When writers criticise or challenge beloved pop acts, their stans will search through their Twitter history in order to find some way to embarrass or discredit them. Stans pride themselves on their organisational capabilities in this manner. They work fast; they uncover dirt quickly; and they are relentless when they have found something they think can harm their critics.

The response each time was vast and destructive, with no understanding of nuance.

It should be stressed that in some of the above cases, there were real criticisms to be made. Abramovitch’s piece was poorly written. Williamson was deliberately riling the community up. These figures deserved some degree of criticism. But the response each time was vast and destructive, with no understanding of nuance. It was an Old Testament reaction, reducing people to “bad guys”, as though anyone who has ever said anything wrong is forever then barred from saying anything right, or as though the unworthy should be cast out of employment and social life.

Stan culture is equipped only to attack. Stans do not draw attention to the structural problems of racism. They do not believe that people can be rehabilitated. The only way they can enact “change” is by ruining people’s lives.

That means stans can pat themselves on the back when they get someone fired, or hounded off Twitter. But they should know, they are doing nothing to stop the next racist article or joke, or to actually improve the lives of disenfranchised communities.

Moreover, stan Twitter frequently gets it wrong. Fandoms are so quick to dispense with hatred and anger, that they will misinterpret messages, or fail to properly read articles. While this story was being written, Junkee published a feature about Natalia Kills, the pop star who “cancelled herself” by criticising a beloved contestant on a New Zealand reality TV show.

Our feature was positive, noting the double-standard in Kills’ cancellation. But her stans didn’t even read the article. They wildly misinterpreted the headline, and began flooding Junkee socials with messages of hate, even targeting freelancers who had nothing to do with the piece. When one of the stans finally clicked on the article and read the piece they were so up in arms about, they called the hate off.

One stan even thanked Junkee for “correcting” the article. It hadn’t been changed.

All too frequently, the way that stans enact justice is wrongheaded, destructive, and inconsistent. These cultures are not often the passionate fans of justice and progress they have been painted as over the last few weeks. They veil their destructive actions under the pretence of social good. And they should be called out for it.

We Need Change

The media has long had an inconsistent reputation with stan culture. Publications — this one included — can get clicks from stans by writing about their heroes. But they always run the risk of getting torn apart if their work is perceived as even bordering on the critical. As a result, media outlets are under pressure to only write glowingly about stan culture, which might explain the recent article written by Joe Coscarelli for The New York Times.

Calling the previous online behaviour of stans “the stuff of legend”, Coscarelli dedicates only one paragraph to the increasingly common behaviour of stans to hound critics off the internet. “K-pop followers have been accused of harassment for piling onto critics or rivals,” Coscarelli says, delicately, skirting around the issue — look at the work being done by the word “accused”.

A few sentences later, he quotes a source who claims that stans are currently trying to “remake fandom in the eyes of the public”. Overall, Coscarelli writes as though the shift towards good has already happened.

It has not. In order to make real change to the toxic nature of stan culture, we should all try harder, stans, artists and the media. After all, such wordplay on the part of Coscarelli is not useful. Stans do harass critics. They are famous for doing so. They delight in doing so. And they delight in doing so because they believe that running certain “guilty” individuals off social media and destroying employment opportunities is a way to enact positive change.

We should be clear that it is not. And we should praise stans when they do make systemic change — when they donate money, and when they boost useful information. That’s a trend towards the positive that needs to be acknowledged. So too must we acknowledge that in the past, the behaviour of stans has been cruel, destructive, and inconsistently applied.

Musicians need to be aware of the massive power that they wield, and to model positive behaviour amongst their fanbases.

It’s the responsibility of the artists themselves to direct the behaviour of their fans too. Grande’s “passionate” excuse, and Tomlinson’s deliberate stoking, can no longer do. Musicians need to be aware of the massive power that they wield, and to model positive behaviour amongst their fanbases. That means being nuanced in how they talk about journalists and how they take criticism. And it means, wherever possible, rewarding good behaviour and decrying bad.

Stan armies are massive monoliths that can get things done. That means that when they decide to, they can enact real, material positive change in the world. But their size, intensity, and organisational capabilities means that they can also enact the worst kind of damage too.

Up until recently, it’s been up to the whim of stans whether they use their energy to boost a song up the charts, crash a police snitch cam, or ruin someone’s life. We should work to incentivise the positive, and call out the negative. Only then can real change occur.

This article was written under an anonymous byline in order to avoid the destructive repercussions against critics of stan culture that it outlines.