Case Study of Twitter’s Social Surveillance Culture: K-Pop’s #WhiteLivesMatter Campaign
By Alan Zhou
As a casual user of Twitter, I often browse the trending hashtags as a way to gauge the news and popular culture topics for the day. These hashtags are usually categorized by Twitter to provide a general idea of what it relates to: President Biden would be classified as politics or Lebron as sports. Thus, I was understandingly surprised when I saw #WhiteLivesMatter trending but classified as K-Pop. Of course, I had to click on the hashtag to find out more, and to my surprise, posts with #WhiteLivesMatter almost exclusively included K-Pop-related content. It is this phenomenon that I seek to understand.
With the rise of technology and social media, Twitter has increasingly become a public sphere in its own right. Scholars have generally approached this through two perspectives: the techno-optimistic lens, which views Twitter as “a new era in democracy,” or the techno-skeptic lens, which views Twitter as “[marking] the end of democracy as we know it.”¹ While both views have their merits, I will adopt the techno-skeptic lens to examine how Twitter allows for a phenomenon that Professor Alice Marwick calls social surveillance — “the ongoing eavesdropping, investigation, gossip, and inquiry that constitutes information gathering by people about their peers, made salient by the social digitization normalized by social media.”² Specifically, I will examine the K-Pop campaign against #WhiteLivesMatter in June 2020 as an example of this type of social surveillance. Then, I will briefly mention two similar K-Pop campaigns. Finally, I will raise some questions about this campaign and where we may be heading.
Description of Twitter’s Functions
One of Twitter’s distinguishing features is the use of the hashtag (though it has now become present on other platforms such as Instagram and Tiktok). The hashtag was created to allow “people from a variety of backgrounds and locations to find each other over a shared interest” by rendering conversations visible across groups of unrelated individuals.³ For example, strangers who share a love for coffee can see one another’s tweet if they search using #coffee. At the same time, hashtags play an important role in altering users’ experiences. Though Twitter is hypothetically a public sphere, one of the issues that arise is that users tend to follow like-minded individuals, thus creating an echo chamber of ideas.⁴ The hashtag function can either perpetuate this phenomenon (if individuals search for or follow hashtags they agree with) or, as we will see in the #WhiteLivesMatter case, provide a means for other users to counteract and infiltrate these echo chambers.
Its second feature is 280-character limit tweets. Tweets can be retweeted by other users (usually signaling their support) or replied to directly, thus initiating conservation. This all takes place in a public sphere where other users can anonymously view these tweets and interact if they desire to. Since this is an online platform, it allows for a flattening of physical distance: users from around the world can engage in instantaneous conservations. Like the hashtag, this 280-character limit also plays a role in constructing a particular environment, namely one that is conducive to “ephemeral” tweeting. Since 280-characters is generally insufficient for nuanced ideas and conversations, emotionally charged posts and quick-witted comments become the norm rather than the exception. Thus, on the whole, users are more likely to resort to incivility, irrational arguments, contradictions, aggression, and insults than they would in everyday conversations.⁵
With these two notable characteristics in mind, I will next explore how Twitter allows for social surveillance.
How does Twitter allow for social surveillance?
Rather than being an example of top-down surveillance, Twitter allows individuals to surveil one another on a social and individual level. What is unique about Twitter, and social media in general, is the “dual nature in which information is both consumed and produced [creating] a symmetrical model of surveillance in which watchers expect, and desire, to be watched.”⁶ This dual nature of surveillance creates an environment in which individuals are able to not only monitor and judge others but also curate their own identity based on how they want others to in turn monitor and judge them. Within this environment, individuals tend to “self-monitor their online actions to maintain the desired balance between publicity and seclusion.”⁷ As a result, similar to Foucault’s theory of the effects of a panopticon, social media creates a form of self-monitoring where individuals will internalize the potential that they are being watched to change their own behaviors to fit a certain, expected social norm. The fact that a users’ activity can be viewed by anyone may then alter its content.
One example of social surveillance in practice is what has become termed as “cancel culture”: society-at-large decides a norm such that anyone who deviates is ostracized and “canceled” from social media platforms as well as in-person. Though it is not the focus of this piece, it warrants further discussion as it has increasingly been used as a tool by activists to seek social justice when traditional methods are unavailable. For the purposes of this piece, I will focus instead on the method of social surveillance used by K-Pop fan accounts against the #WhiteLivesMatter campaign: instead of directly ostracizing #WhiteLivesMatter supporters, they decided to overload the hashtag as a way of censoring it.
K-Pop and #WhiteLivesMatter
The backdrop to this K-Pop campaign was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement that erupted in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was yet another tragic case of police brutality against an unarmed African-American man. #BlackLivesMatter trended worldwide as people demonstrated their support for the movement. However, in response, #WhiteLivesMatter was adopted by the White Supremacist movement. As a result, K-Pop fans began to post endless K-Pop content featuring a variety of their favorite K-Pop bands and stars with the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag. These were usually posted from fandom accounts, or accounts specifically designated to post K-Pop content, rather than personal accounts with identifiable information such as their real name.
Here are a number of examples for reference:
This eventually resulted in Twitter reclassifying the category of the hashtag as K-Pop. When one attempted to search for this hashtag, rather than being able to connect and communicate with other White Supremacist sympathizers, one was met with a variety of K-Pop content.
Here are some reactions to the effects of this trend:
The response seemed to be overwhelmingly positive: though many were seemingly confused, they were supportive of this unexpected social campaign. I tried choosing a variety to best represent the overall trend, but there were countless other tweets I could have used. So, having established the background of this K-Pop campaign, how can we analyze it through the lens of social surveillance?
K-Pop Campaign: Social Surveillance?
Among the many fascinating aspects of this campaign is the way in which a group of individuals was able to quickly and effectively organize to mount this campaign. There are undoubtedly many factors involved, but one to consider in the context of this discussion is the scale of K-Pop “activists” on Twitter compared to supporters of other cultural icons or pop stars. As you can see below (BTS and Exo) the scale is unprecedented: no other group even comes close, and this is only looking at two K-Pop groups, albeit two of the most popular groups. Also, I want to note that this chart is from 2018 and the groups have only increased in popularity since.
Using the dual nature of social surveillance described earlier, this K-Pop campaign was a (successful) attempt to suppress the #WhiteLivesMatter. Individuals, connected not by their political views per se, but rather by their K-Pop fandom, decided to collectively bombard the attempt by another sub-culture (of White Supremacists) to organize. They took on the first role as surveyors to collectively censor the ideas espoused by #WhiteLivesMatter. Interestingly, rather than going through the traditional route of presenting arguments to critique the ideas behind #WhiteLivesMatter, they posted photos, videos, memes, and other K-Pop-related content. Without even addressing the contents of #WhiteLivesMatter, their posting was sufficiently able to overload and censor it. This neutral, non-political content, in a way, resists the ephemeral nature of Twitter and thus could potentially have had the effect of not alienating other users in ways that more traditional forms of discourse would have. Based on the reactions of much of the public, they seemed to generally agree with the campaign, posting memes and tweets in support. Furthermore, rather than engaging with the users who may support the ideas of White Supremacists themselves, they choose to engage with the hashtag, bypassing the echo chamber that those users potentially function within. Supporters of #WhiteLivesMatter will see their Twitter feeds flooded with K-Pop content though (I assume) they have no interest in the genre. If we view this campaign as a social movement, it was overwhelmingly successful in its ability to organize and win the public’s support in the process.
In regards to the second role (of being surveilled), the majority of users who made these posts did so through K-Pop fandom accounts; that is, it is not their personal Twitter account that has markers of their real identity. This presents two interesting points to consider: first, there is perhaps less of a fear of themselves being surveilled by others because there is less personal information connected to these accounts. This addresses the aforementioned effect of social media acting on one to self-monitor their behaviors: here, there is no need to self-monitor given their anonymous account. Second, given the collective nature of the K-Pop community participating in the trend, each individual user becomes desegregated in the larger mass of similar users, further anonymizing them and making it more difficult for them to be surveyed. Thus, this effect could potentially lower the barrier of entry to individuals who would otherwise not post in support of the movement due to the fear of being watched by others. This could then further increase the widespreadness of the campaign.
These dual natures taken together created an effective campaign in which participating users, unified by their K-Pop fandom, collectively were able to effectively surveil others without fear of themselves being surveilled.
Similar K-Pop Campaigns:
It is briefly worth mentioning two similar campaigns, also mounted by K-Pop activists.
Dallas Police iWatch Application:
First, is the case of the Dallas police iWatch app. Also in response to the BLM movement, the Dallas police released an application that was intended for individuals to report on protestors and illegal activity. K-Pop activists acted quickly to bombard the application with similar posting as the #WhiteLivesMatter campaign, forcing a shutdown of the application after only a day. Here’s a tweet showing the response of a Twitter user to the Dallas police’s original tweet for help.
President Trump’s Tulsa Rally:
The next campaign took place during President Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020. The stadium’s capacity was 19,000 and requests for attendance were all done virtually. More than a million tickets were requested but only 6,200 were scanned on the day of the rally.⁸ It turns out that K-Pop fan accounts, in conjunction with Alt TikTok, joined up to encourage their supporters to request tickets but not show up. Furthermore, these online activists had the hindsight to act retroactively to prevent the Trump campaign from realizing what’s happening: “many users deleted their posts after 24 to 48 hours in order to conceal their plan and keep it from spreading into the mainstream internet.”⁹ Below is an image of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responding to President Trump’s campaign manager at the time to explain what had happened.
Both these campaigns, like the #WhiteLivesMatter, were successful in achieving their goals while maintaining the public’s overwhelming support.
I also wanted to briefly mention that there are other “networked publics” of marginalized groups such as Black Twitter and the feminist movement that have created sub-cultures on Twitter.¹⁰ At the same time, this also extends to include more extremist groups such as the Alt-Right and Alt-Left.¹¹ Thus, one could imagine similar campaigns to these being adopted by these groups — though perhaps, the aforementioned overwhelming presence of K-Pop fans is a unique and necessary pre-existing condition.
Implications for the Future
While I have mostly been approaching these campaigns with a positive lens, it is also important to acknowledge the flipside. Just because this form of trolling was used for a “positive” (as agreed by the majority of the public) purpose in the #WhiteLivesMatter campaign, it does not prevent it from being harnessed for other purposes. That is, though the effects are positive in this instance, this method of social surveillance can be used for any purpose. For example, if one supported President Trump’s campaign, one would certainly criticize what happened at the Tulsa Rally. In other words, is this form of social surveillance simply an adoption of civil disobedience techniques into the online world, and if so, is it necessarily good? Or are we looking at something entirely different and perhaps more dangerous? Similarly, going back to the original question, how does this fit within the larger context of Twitter’s role within democratic society? Do these campaigns demonstrate Twitter’s benefit to democratic society by easing collective action and organizing? And if so, is that necessary a positive contribution, or does it jeopardize democracy instead? Should we look to this campaign as an example to adopt for other movements or should we see this as a warning sign that we need to regulate this form of activism? These are all important questions to consider as we attempt to understand this new form of social surveillance made available by Twitter.
- Gwen Bouvier and Judith E. Rosenbaum, “Communication in the Age of Twitter: The Nature of Online Deliberation,” in Twitter, the Public Sphere, and the Chaos of Online Deliberation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 1–22.
- Alice Marwick, “The public domain: Surveillance in everyday life,” Surveillance & Society 9, no. 4 (2012): 382.
- Bouvier and Rosenbaum, “Communication in the Age of Twitter: The Nature of Online Deliberation,” 1–22.
- Gwen Bouvier, “Racist call-outs and cancel culture on Twitter: The limitations of the platform’s ability to define issues of social justice,” Discourse, Context & Media 38 (2020): 100431.
- Marwick, “The public domain: Surveillance in everyday life,” Surveillance & Society 9, no. 4 (2012): 381.
- Ibid., 379.
- Taylor Lorenz et al., “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally,” The New York Times, The New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/style/tiktok-trump-rally-tulsa.html.
- Lorenz et al., “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally”.
- Bouvier and Rosenbaum, “Communication in the Age of Twitter: The Nature of Online Deliberation,” 1–22.