We're living in the golden age of fandom, where social media has allowed stans to interact with their idols on a daily basis. Whether you're a barb, lamb, belieber, or registered bardi gang member, you're probably @-ing somebody. On Stan Stories, we meet the internet's most dedicated followers and delve deep into their obsessions.
On a Sunday night in May, 19-year-old Ellie, an NCTzen from New York City, tweeted that Taeyong, her favorite member of K-pop group NCT 127, had a collaboration in the works with Puerto Rican trap king Bad Bunny. The news quickly took off, garnering over a thousand retweets from fellow stans within hours and igniting her mentions with a maelstrom of replies ranging from keyboard smashes in all caps to genuine confusion. Buried amongst the chaos was a single question, sans punctuation and pretense: "are we clearing searches."
Insiders knew the answer was yes. Taeyong and Bad Bunny weren't planning to drop a banger in July. The collab was a mistruth created by Ellie to clear up Taeyong's search results on Twitter, which had been flooded with the phrase "Taeyong bully" due to a middle school incident that has since become fodder for online fanwars. To pull it off, Ellie had changed her Twitter name and image to match that of a popular K-pop translator. These big accounts regularly translate breaking Korean entertainment news for English-speaking international audiences, so NCTzens who were aimlessly scrolling through their timelines saw what appeared to be a legitimate story from a historically reliable source — even complete with a misleading Naver link that redirected to a Korean article about Taeyong's airport fashion. Astute fans may have caught Ellie's real handle, but that doesn't mean they didn't play along. Her cunning plan had worked.
"I cleared the searches within a couple hours," she tells PAPER from her Brooklyn home. "Taeyong fans are always clearing searches. We always have to, or so we think we have to."
Fellow Taeyong stan Varshini knows the feeling. "His searches are always a mess," the 16-year-old Londoner says. So, about twice a week she helps clear them, replying to tweets with positive phrases. "I'm comfortable clearing the searches if an idol hasn't done anything wrong," she says. "In Taeyong's case, I don't think the one comment he made when he was a [young] teen should define him now."
Within recent years, clearing the searches has become an inescapable part of K-pop standom on Twitter. When an idol or group's "searches" — or the associated keywords that generate when someone looks up a name or phrase in the platform's search bar — are overrun by negative results, driven either by fan-made feuds or real-life scandals, fans take swift action to inundate their timelines with positive keywords and seemingly harmless misinformation to drown out what they perceive to be a blemish on their idol's reputation. (Some have even made detailed guides on how to do it most effectively.) So for Ellie, getting thousands of accounts to tweet about "Taeyong Bad Bunny" was a clever way to clear "Taeyong bully" from the searches, which the algorithm identifies as "topics that are popular now," as opposed to over a long stretch of time, a Twitter spokesperson clarifies.
Fans of Korean idol music have long established their social media savvy by dominating charts, trending hashtags and efficiently mobilizing to reach streaming goals and organize global fandom projects. Recently, K-pop fans have also made headlines for their political activism on the platform. Following George Floyd's murder on May 25, they've spammed police surveillance apps, flooded racist hashtags with fancams and raised money for Black Lives Matter and other pro-Black organizations. They even teamed up with TikTokers, YouTubers and Facebook moms to troll President Trump by inflating the registration numbers for his June Tulsa rally. But often lost in this conversation are the voices of Black and POC fans who experience rampant anti-Blackness and racism in these fandom spaces. Many see clearing the searches as just another way to silence minority voices, especially when fans would rather bury important issues than actually acknowledge an idol's wrongdoing.
In recent months, there have been several instances of cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity across multiple K-pop fandoms. ATEEZ leader Hongjoong sported cornrows in the group's latest album packaging; BLACKPINK placed a small statue of Hindu god Ganesha on the ground in their music video for "How You Like That"; and in a July video, SEVENTEEN rapper Wonwoo sang two words of "Curry," a famous Korean song that stereotypes South Asian culture. For Varshini, who likes SEVENTEEN's music but isn't a full-blown fan (known as a Carat), the fandom's response to the controversy was off-putting. "I saw how some fans tried to excuse the group and silence other South Asians, and it just made me think, 'If people are excusing them then how will being in the fandom be for me as a South Asian?'" she says. "I just get a bit confused about how some fans so blatantly don't care about other people and cultures."
While these themes aren't new to K-pop, there's now more attention being paid to issues of cultural appropriation, racism, misogyny and bad behavior — in part because of K-pop's growing popularity around the world — and as a result, idols and their companies are being held accountable like never before. And in some cases fans' voices are being heard; ATEEZ's management KQ Entertainment released a statement saying they were taking concerns of appropriation seriously, while YG Entertainment quietly removed Ganesha from "How You Like That" completely.
But for every fan who tries to hold their idol accountable for their actions, there's someone trying to clear the searches and protect the artist's image, despite the fact that most stans agree that clearing the searches often brings more attention to the issue. Just as easily as "Hongjoong cornrows" popped up in his searches, a group of fans started spamming Twitter with keywords like "Hongjoong best leader" to keep the scandal at bay. They didn't believe that Hongjoong, someone with a history of social awareness, deserved the criticism. But Black fans just wanted to help educate him so that it wouldn't happen again.
"We should be confronting the issue instead of clearing the searches because clearing the searches doesn't help Hongjoong," says Ahomari, the co-host of 106 & Seoul: A Black K-Pop Podcast. "It's silencing the people who are most hurt by these situations." A multi, or fan of multiple groups, Ahomari has been into K-pop for 11 years, so they weren't surprised by the cultural appropriation itself. "It's kind of sad that I'm used to this by now," they say wearily. But having only recently rejoined Twitter to promote their new podcast (after a brief 2019 stint as a BTS stan account that ended after being "ratioed to hell" for speaking out about the anti-Blackness they experienced as a fan), Ahomari is still getting used to stan dynamics on the platform. For starters, they have both "BLM" and "racism" muted.
"I was having so much fun with K-pop before I found Twitter," they say. "It feels like shit sometimes. People with Black Lives Matter in their [Twitter] name were calling me all kinds of names, and it's like I guess my Black life doesn't matter."
"I'm not there for any other reason but to enjoy the entertainment," they add. "K-pop reminds me of a time when pop music was fun. I just wish it was more about the entertainment than it is about silencing people or protecting idols or infantilizing them. When something like this is happening, it's never the right time to defend an idol. They don't need protection."
It's the way in which some fans will infantilize idols that skews their overall perception of them, Ahomari says. "Every fandom has a group of people who don't see their idols as anything but perfect. But it's not humanly possible for anybody to be perfect."
Still, K-pop is a highly image-conscious industry, not just with its keen focus on dynamic visuals but also with the standard idols are held to in their native South Korea, where a bruise on one's reputation or character can potentially end a career prematurely. In K-pop, drug allegations are grounds for contract termination, minor offenses warrant handwritten apologies and dating — while not necessarily against the rules for every idol — is still seen as risky and something that makes them vulnerable to relentless scrutiny from Korean netizens, or anonymous commenters.
With that perspective in mind, it makes sense that some fans would seize any opportunity to protect their fave's image, and in turn, a sparkling image of an idol and their group reflects well on the fandom as a whole. But when that protection comes at the expense of the truth — minimizing real issues, knowingly spreading misinformation, and, even worse, systematically silencing marginalized fans — then why do some fans spend so much physical and mental labor doing it?
"It's like a call to arms," says SEVENTEEN fan Jane, going by a pseudonym. "It's the same way that you are supposed to watch a video over and over again, or vote for a music show multiple times. Anything you're supposed to do to show that you're a good fan, you do without even thinking about what it actually means or what the issue is. I don't think fans are thinking about what it is they're actually saying by clearing the searches."
"People feel like to be a good fan you have to support them in every way possible, and in this case it's supporting them by hiding their scandals," she adds. "By clearing the searches, we're also supporting that ideology. This might be very American of me, but I'd much rather support someone who makes a mistake and apologizes."
The 34-year-old multi recently joined stan Twitter while quarantining at home in Los Angeles as a way for her to tweet about K-pop without inundating her professional account with daily memes and musings. It's given her a newfound perspective. "There's a weird freedom that I've never understood but I understand now about anonymity," she says. "People who feel like they can say anything because no one knows who you are… I don't know how many people are clearing the searches on their main account."
This idea of what it means to be a good fan is at the heart of so many of fandom's more morally ambiguous debates. "The reality is there's no way to be a good fan," Jane says. "You are entitled to like whatever you like however you like it." Meanwhile, the K-pop industry — and the global entertainment industry as a whole — does little to address these issues because they don't want to alienate the superfans who not only spend their money on artists whom they love but also provide them with free, unadulterated labor in the form of publicity.
"Fans are really willing to do free PR," Ellie says. "It's not even clearing the searches and rewriting history but also covering up things that may have been seen as problematic." Varshini sees it differently: "I think it feels rewarding for them. It doesn't feel like a job. They're happy to do it for free."
However, for some fans, especially empaths like Ellie, that work comes at a real cost to their own mental health. "I was personally getting really upset clearing Taeyong's searches because it just felt like everything I was doing was never going to change anything," Ellie says. "There will always be more searches to clear. It can be really exhausting. Idols have companies to fight for them, but a regular person doesn't have that."
She's since stopped clearing searches and has stepped back from the fandom. She still stans, and she's grateful for the friends she's met through K-pop, but the experience has been tarnished in ways that are unfathomable for those who've never been called an "anti" for standing up for their culture — for voicing their pain and frustration. "I don't see the point in riding for people who would never ride for me as a Black person," she adds. "I'm already struggling as a Black fan to navigate these spaces. I'm dealing with idols appropriating and disrespecting my culture and now you're expecting me to clear the searches? I'm not doing that anymore. It's up to Taeyong and God now. I don't think these companies realize just how much these fans do for them."
The harsh reality, of course, is that they probably do. They're the ones who benefit most from this level of devotion, not the artists — whose own ignorance often fuels fanwars, with each fandom vying to have the least problematic faves — and certainly not the fans. After all, there's no one to clear their searches, to wipe away their mistakes and insensitivities and mistruths. That's a mark they have to live with, and hopefully grow from.
"I can both love an idol and have a conversation about their problematic hairstyle, or wardrobe, or insensitive actions," Jane says. "I don't expect perfection from my idols, I expect growth. Clearing the searches makes a statement that you don't."
Or, as Ellie concludes, firmly: "If people didn't care about image and actually cared about morals, then clearing the searches wouldn't even be a thing."