With their dorky haircuts and boyish smiles, South Korean boyband BTS are perhaps the most unthreatening musical act ever. As far from the Insane Clown Posse as humanly possible, the troupe sings saccharine songs about social issues while they dance in meticulously choreographed routines. But don’t be fooled. Stood behind the heartthrobs is a legion of die-hard superfans who will do almost anything to protect the honour of their beloved idols.
I know this first hand because last Tuesday I pissed them off. All of them.
It all started with a dumb, undeniably ham-fisted joke. A friend of mine posted a tweet about her favorite BTS member, Jimin, a chizzled 23-year-old with unnaturally-coiffed hair. The BTS A.R.M.Y (that’s what they’re called) made it go viral. At the time of writing, it had 2.6 thousand retweets and almost 14 thousand likes.
And there were comments. Some were sweet, a few were mildly aggressive. What was constant across the board was a seemingly fanatical adoration for the group. I replied to my friend with a dumb joke: “I’m not sure what scares me more, ISIS or BTS superfans.”
“You’re going to get bombarded with replies for the next few days,” she warned me in a direct message. And she was right. The replies soon flooded in. There were a lot of them. Hundreds. Maybe thousands.
Some were upset I had compared ISIS, a terrorist group with a record for abusing human rights that’s almost unparalleled in the modern world, with BTS. For the record, I hadn’t: rather, I’d listed two things that scared me. Juxtaposing something extreme with something comparatively benign was part of the joke. That said, it wasn’t interpreted that way. If the cardinal rule of telling a joke is that you shouldn’t have to explain it, I’d failed miserably. Others were upset I’d joked about terrorism, period.
I must admit, I have a hard time with this line of argument. I believe that in humour nothing – absolutely nothing – should be off-limits.
Jokes, at least the ones that land well, are a great way of exploring complicated and often controversial topics, as demonstrated by comedians like Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, and Jim Jefferies. That said, I wasn’t trying to make a grand point (or, for that matter, any real point of substance). I was, for lack of a better word, shitposting. The thing is, when you’re in the eye of a social media hurricane, there isn’t much room for nuance or explanation. And then there were the replies that, I thought, stepped beyond the mark of reasonable outrage. Things got ugly.
There were personal insults, and thinly veiled expressions of hope that I’d soon die. My wife, who is mentioned in my Twitter bio and had otherwise refused to engage with the mob, was dragged into the maelstrom. Somebody called her a terrorist and a white supremacist – two things that couldn’t be further from the truth. A nameless, faceless account DM’d her to call her a “stupid bitch.” And then they tried to drag my employers into the situation who, rather than sharpening their P45 pencil, were bemused by the whole situation.
— Mia (@composermyg) October 8, 2019
It was at that point I wondered how things had got so wildly out of control. So, I reached out to a BTS superfan.
On the frontlines with the A.R.M.Y
Filling the ranks of the BTS A.R.M.Y are ordinary foot soldiers like Ashton, a 19-year old political science student from the United States. Ashton stumbled upon the fandom in 2017 after becoming disillusioned with other popular music, and quickly found himself integrated into a subculture that’s firmly rooted within social media.
“Almost everything happens here on Twitter,” Ashton said, adding that some users prefer to coalesce exclusively on Instagram. He stumbled across my original tweet in a group chat, and after I reached out to the community, sent me a direct message.
Ashton wasn’t impressed with my joke. I understood his anger, but I had a gnawing feeling that mere outrage had something more to do with the attention it received. Twitter is replete with dumb jokes, and it’s only the especially heinous ones that tend to get attention. To understand why, he explained, you have to understand the history of the band.
BTS weren’t always a household name. Big Hit Entertainment, the band’s record label, plucked its first few members from the grimy underground of the Seoul hip-hop scene. At the time, Big Hit was a minnow in a big pond, struggling financially. At one point, it hung over the precipice of bankruptcy. This origins story, tinged as it is with adversity, has inspired great loyalty within its fans.
The BTS fandom is also wary of being mischaracterised. Although the group fits the pastiche of boybands that preceded it, like JLS and East 17, its fandom attracts those from all corners of society. All genders, all ages.
“The media makes it seem like the army is 95 per cent girls, when boys make up somewhere between a quarter and a third of us,” Ashton said. That figure is almost impossible to independently verify, but a Brandwatch analysis from earlier this year suggests the real figures are in line with Ashton’s estimate. Of all gender-categorised Twitter accounts following the group, 78 per cent belonged to women. Just 22 per cent of the band’s Twitter followers identified as male.
Ashton was eager to highlight the A.R.M.Y’s philanthropic work. The group have fronted charitable campaigns which its fanbase has donated heavily to. But perhaps the hallmark of the fandom is its relatively sophisticated means it uses to raise the band’s profile internationally. A 2018 study from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab highlighted the widespread use of sock-puppet accounts to amplify hashtags relating to the band.
In a post Cambridge Analytica-world, this seems slightly sinister, but one could also make the argument that it’s an inevitable part of fandom in the 21st century.
That said, what is sinister is the often bullying tactics used by the A.R.M.Y against those they’ve perceived to have wronged them. When UK radio DJ Roman Kemp described a BTS track as “noise,” he was assaulted with angry messages. His employer was dubbed “racist.” Someone even complained to OFCOM, who dismissed the complaint, because obviously.
Anyone who deviates from the official party line established by the A.R.M.Y is fair-game – even those who otherwise heap praise on the group. When journo Douglas Greenwood described BTS as “sugary” in a glowing concert review for The Independent, he was accused of sexism by a baying mob.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la BTS chose
Looking at my dumpster fire of a Twitter feed, I couldn’t help but feel as though there’s parallels between the contemporary BTS fandom, and that of the Beatles.
In the mid-1960s, when Beatlemania reached its halcyon moment, Beatles fans acted with the same level of unrestrained enthusiasm. When the Fab Four performed in Prague in 1964, local authorities arrested five unruly fans, who were described by a since-declassified cable from the local Embassy as “rioters.”
Indeed, BTS themselves once paid homage to the Beatles in a TV appearance. When the group performed on the Colbert show, they painstakingly recreated the iconic 1964 Ed Sullivan Show performance that introduced that introduced the Beatles to America, in turn making them “more popular than Jesus.” Perhaps BTS are this generation’s Beatles. Musically, they’re worlds apart, but they command the same level of fanatical dedication. And with no Prague parks to trash, they instead turn their focus to the virtual realm.
My joke was glib, granted, but their behaviour was far worse. Mine was said to a friend; they engaged in a synchronised volley of abuse that was vastly disproportionate to any “offense”. People expressed seemingly-genuine hopes that I’d come to physical harm, while bystanders, including my wife, were savaged by a flock of anonymous accounts. The whole episode was surreal.
I don’t want to embark upon a lazy Rod Liddle-esque rant about “snowflakes” who can’t take a joke, because that’s, well, lazy. But I will conclude by saying that what I learned most from this genuinely bonkers experience is how little in life really changes. Fandoms are insane. Mobs are worse. The internet is great at stripping nuance and tone from conversation, and that’s particularly evident when someone makes a joke. And weirdly, given a plurality of BTS fans are women, the worst abuse is always directed towards women.
Remember that person who called my wife a “stupid bitch?” Well, they sent me a separate message that was comparatively mild, suggesting I “clean up my act.” Given many in the mob called me a misogynist, I thought that was bitterly ironic.
Featured image: BTS/Facebook (modified, obviously)