K-Pop Stans’ Trump Prank Ratchets Up the Internet Wars

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Optimism about the internet’s role in politics peaked around the time of the Arab Spring, then steadily collapsed into alarm and despair until this weekend, when it ticked up again after President Donald Trump held a disappointing campaign rally.

There are various ways to interpret the lower-than-expected turnout at the Tulsa, Oklahoma event, but among the most intriguing was the claim from a group of Korean pop fans that they’d undercut the campaign by coordinating to reserve thousands of tickets, then not showing up. They are likely giving themselves too much credit. Still, the narrative took hold for online observers as an example of a rare bright spot in the social media hellscape.

The surge in activism from young Korean pop music enthusiasts has been one of the stranger plot lines of a uniquely unsettled time in American politics. Working together, they’ve rendered Twitter Inc. hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter useless by filling them with music video clips, and they crashed a mobile app established by the Dallas Police Department to collect evidence of illegal activity at protests by overwhelming it with data. This has gripped the imagination of some internet commentators, who noted how young people have reconstituted their “lightning-fast coordination and prodigious spamming abilities” for what the fans believe are righteous political causes.

But spamming has historically been seen as a bad thing. When right-wing trolls coordinate to do things like pollute hashtags, pile onto people they dislike or disrupt the process of government it’s regularly described as a serious threat to democracy. The tactics are remarkably similar, though the end goals are different. 

Emerson Brooking, co-author of Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media, said that he didn’t see the K-pop movement in the same light. “When you look at the trolling tactics of the far right, the ends are almost always violent or dehumanizing of their targets,” he said. “When the fact is political embarrassment, you can treat it with a little more levity.” Unlike other trolling campaigns, the people engaging in the K-pop operation weren’t obscuring their identities behind fake or anonymous accounts, he said.

No matter whose side they’re on, campaigns like these test the boundaries of social media companies, which have policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook Inc.’s head of security policy, said on Twitter that the K-pop ticket-buying scheme didn’t count as deceptive behavior, writing that “coordinated protests are an important part of politics, and we should expect these to migrate online, which means we’ll keep having to analyze these efforts.”

A commonly cited lesson from the 2016 presidential campaign was how vulnerable American political discourse was to manipulation by malevolent actors controlling armies of bots. But much of the chicanery online this time is coming from actual people. Brooking, who now studies social media manipulation at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said that this is true of many of the state-sponsored disinformation campaigns his group is tracking. There is also significant organic trolling for causes that run counter to the sensibilities of the K-pop fans.

For critics of the president who feel beaten down after nearly four years of a constant online combat, the emergence of a troll army fighting on their side might seem like a respite. But it could just as well be a sign of further escalation. 

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