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A fan poses in front of a BTS poster during a concert in Seoul in October 2019. Photo: Ed JONES / AFP
K-Pop

Meet the BTS Fans Trying to Change the World, One Online Campaign at a Time

The K-pop band’s dedicated supporters have long used social media to break music records. Now, they’re using their global network for social issues, even successfully raising $1 million for the Black Lives Matter movement.
July 10, 2020, 11:22am

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.

If there’s one thing we learned in the past month, it’s to never underestimate K-pop fandoms. Fandoms like ARMY, the supporters behind boy band BTS, and arguably the biggest K-pop fan group in the world right now.

For years, they’ve shown that they can break streaming records for the band through masterfully organised online campaigns. In 2019, BTS became the first group since The Beatles to have three Billboard No. 1 albums within a year. They also once held a YouTube record for most views in 24 hours, with their music video for “Boy With Luv.” According to Twitter stats, the group receives the most engagement out of anyone else on the platform. Earlier this week, fans got BTS’ song “Black Swan” to reach No. 1 on iTunes in more countries than any song in history.

But then, eventually, it just didn’t seem enough to break music records. Inspired by BTS' advocacies, fans started coming together to support social causes. This became more apparent in recent months amid issues the world is facing.

In June, amid Black Lives Matter protests, BTS fans successfully took over right-wing hashtags on social media by using them with memes. They also helped TikTokkers and fans of other K-pop groups sabotage a Trump rally, and spammed an app reporting protesters to the police, with fancams of their idols.

Some initiatives are more philanthropic. BTS fans managed to match the band’s $1 million donation to the Black Lives Matter movement in June. Before that, they raised thousands of dollars for people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Making this possible are collectives like One In An ARMY (OIAA), which formed in 2018 and is now made up of 28 BTS fans from around the world. These eager volunteers have used the collective for global good. They seek out non-profit organisations to work with worldwide and harness the power of the fanbase to collect donations.

Their motto, “I am one in an army,” plays with the idea that many people giving small amounts can create a substantial impact. They organised seven campaigns this year, to celebrate the seven years since BTS’ debut.

VICE spoke with some members of One In An Army to find out more about how the group was formed. From a pharmacist in Greece to a store manager in Saudi Arabia, they each share how their love for K-pop led to a life of online activism.

Erika, 40

One In An Army spokesperson, United States

How did you become a fan of BTS?

I was introduced to them by some friends. I was so impressed—with their talent, artistry, brotherhood, how they worked together, their dedication and commitment to self-improvement and putting out meaningful music—that I soon became a huge fan.

How does it feel to be a part of the BTS fandom?

As a Black woman, at first, I expected to be a rarity or an anomaly in the fandom, but it wasn't long before I realised that ARMY was far more diverse than I thought. Every day, I am exposed to different languages, cultures, and perspectives from ARMYs who are both alike and different from me in many ways. I feel perfectly at home.

What reactions have you gotten from your peers?

They seem slightly perplexed, mostly, but hey, if I'm happy.

What made you want to join One In An Army? What exactly is your role?

I was interested in helping make a difference in the world with this group of amazing people who support BTS and the type of men and artists that they are—inspiring people towards positive action. I have various roles but I often reach out to organisations, as well as help manage the Twitter account. We all have a say in choosing organisations we work with and putting together ideas for the campaigns.

How did you feel when your fandom raised $1 million for the Black Lives Matter movement?

I wasn't surprised because I know when ARMY sets out to achieve a goal, we commit until it's done. But it was a very proud moment seeing everyone come together for something they believed in.

Louise, 29

Receptionist & head of One In An Army, Sweden

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Louise with BTS merch.

How did you become a fan of BTS? You’re based in Sweden, which is quite far from where the huge fan bases are.

A friend introduced me to the new K-pop groups and BTS was the one that stayed with me. I really liked every single song, which was unusual for me. When you start to get to know them, you’re stuck. You follow them on this emotional journey, while simultaneously going on one yourself, without even realising it sometimes. They heal you even when you don’t know it. It’s quite magical.

Are you a fan of any other K-pop artists?

I can still enjoy some other artists but my attention is only on BTS, personally.

What made you want to start One In An Army?

I wasn’t really meant to even be a part of it. I saw the tweet [about rallying ARMY to help refugees in the spirit of #ENDViolence and the Love Myself Campaign] that started it all and commented a suggestion for them to contact fanbases. I went to bed and when I woke up, I had been invited to a Twitter group chat.

I’m not a leader by nature, but for some reason, I kind of took charge in organising our thoughts and getting things done. Taking notes, setting up accounts, making sure we saved everything in an efficient way.

Over the course of a weekend, with minimal sleep and no contact with the outside world, we had come up with the entire concept and name for One In An ARMY, and started planning it out. It was quite amazing.

All the ideas these people had were so creative and inclusive. We haven’t changed much since 2018. We focus on positivity—what we can change, how we can help—and not on the problem. We do our best to make sure everyone feels included, and say that even small donations are important. We make sure that everyone sees that this is something we do together, because that’s what makes us successful.

One of our team members found a TED talk that talked about successful fundraising and it turned out that we were hitting every single point. I just feel amazed by the minds of the people on this team, because it’s truly always about doing good, together. Never about anything else. The rest is just a happy byproduct.

What brought you guys together?

It was everyone's willingness to do something good. That’s the kind of people BTS attracts, people who want to be better, who want to make the world better, because as a group, that’s what they want too.

So how exactly do you guys work?

We always work as one, but we’re all different and sometimes our ideas go into opposite or different directions. We always hash it out, discuss every angle, and try our best to come up with the best solutions and ideas before voting. We work as a democracy and go for the one with most votes—no hard feelings. We also try to make sure other voices in the fanbase are heard, as much as possible. That’s why we do several polls on social media as well as surveys.

What initiatives have you pioneered aside from raising funds for Black Lives Matter?

I’m not sure we’ve pioneered anything because we always take our cues from the fanbase or BTS. Sure, we might have helped make some projects successful, but they never came from us, they came from the fanbase as a whole.

One of the more memorable ones was at Citi Field, BTS’ first stadium concert abroad. A canned food collection was set up, together with blankets for later distribution to the people in need in New York City.

There were also “kindness notes” collected and distributed to the staff working at the concert, to show appreciation to them for making it possible for us to even see the concert. The project was highly appreciated in the fandom and those affected by it, especially the notes. Kind words can go a long way.

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What type of feedback have you gotten?

I feel confident when I say that the feedback has been positive. Sure, there is the occasional person who thinks that people should be able to be kind without doing it as part of a fanbase, or that it shouldn’t be showcased. But we see the kind of effect it has on people.

Someone said that they felt their small donation didn’t help much, but after seeing the amount donated altogether, she was able to understand that what she did made an impact.

Have the BTS boys taken notice of your initiatives?

Not that we know of. They have acknowledged that they know of the many charity projects that have been done in their names, but never us by name. During their birthdays, there are a lot of charity projects, from all over our fandom. We do, however, have basically every NGO we work with send a letter after each campaign to their PO Box, so those at least should have reached them.

Where do you see the organisation going in the future? What other causes would you like to champion?

I just hope we get to continue doing what we’re doing—making an impact on people’s lives. Because we’re a global fandom, we’re everywhere. And my hope is that we can help each other wherever we are, because that’s what BTS does.

How did you guys feel when you raised $1 million for the Black Lives Matter movement in less than 24 hours?

Shocked, amazed, proud? I woke up in the middle of it. I think the initiative started just when I went to bed, because I remember reading the article about BTS donating $1 million before falling asleep. ARMY had been championing the movement for weeks already when the news about BTS’ donations broke. We had already gotten requests for places to help, and to specify what organisations we recommended. So we had all the resources ready to help ARMY reach their goal. And I think it was kind of said as a joke. Like one of those “wouldn’t it be funny if we matched the donations?” And since the fandom had already been feeling strongly about it, and were kind of in the BLM spirit already, it spread like wildfire.

There wasn’t a 24-hour goal when we began but when the fanbase realised it might be possible, that’s what they went for. It took us a few days to even realise what had happened. It was only possible because the entire fandom helped, and pulled all resources they could think of.

This is the same way we help BTS get to high grounds, the grassroots movement, the spread of information, the rallying of everyone we can find. Our ARMY made it possible and I honestly don't think any other fandom could do that. Not in that way. And I love this family for it.

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Fans giving a note to staff at a BTS concert in New York. Photo: Courtesy of One In An Army

Liana, 42

Pharmacist and mother, Greece

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Liana wearing BTS pins.

How did you become a fan of BTS?

I watched a clip on a TV show about BTS member Taehyung (V) being voted as the most handsome man of 2018 and there were also some clips from BTS music videos. I got so distracted by the visuals and the production that I didn't really pay attention to the TV hosts who were arguing about modern beauty standards.

Then I searched for BTS on YouTube and the first video that I watched was “Fake Love.” Then “DNA,” then “IDOL,” and then I moved on to live performances and custom content created by the amazing ARMY creators. I was never into contemporary pop, hip-hop, trap or K-pop but I loved the new sound and their lyrics that talk about empowerment, social issues, and mental health.

They pour their soul into their music and I felt as if they were talking to me about all the matters that concerned me. No other artist has managed to do this and no other artist has been able to connect with me emotionally and mentally.

At some point, I saw my reflection on the tablet’s screen and I had the widest, most endearing smile.

My heart was filled with love and hope because these seven young Korean men were the embodiment of what is good in this world. BTS is changing the world and I felt the urge to be a part of that process. So I became ARMY.

Are you a fan of any other K-pop artists?

Not really. I casually listen to other K-pop songs, as well as songs from western artists, but I’m not a fan of any other group.

What is it like to be a mother and be in a K-pop fandom?

Parenthood is a hard but joyful task. As a full-time working mom of two young kids, I had to shift my priorities to my family, leaving no time to do something for myself, and that was mentally draining. But this is my hobby. It’s something I do for myself in order to recharge and destress after a tiring day.

Also, the need to be informed about everything that is going on in the fandom connected me with technology. I learned to handle social media more effectively and to navigate myself through the numerous apps. These newfound skills will eventually help me connect with my sons when they are at the proper age to use them.

How has your family reacted to this?

My husband is very supportive. I found something that Ι’m passionate about that provides me with happiness and enthusiasm, and a happier woman is a better mom and wife. My kids are rather young but they like dancing to BTS music and having a mom who knows how to have fun.

What made you want to join One In An Army?

OIAA caught my eye because they were doing something completely different than the other fan groups. They seemed responsible, hardworking, and inclusive. This appealed to my motive to do good and give back the love I was given by the fandom. OIAA is trying to help people in need by organising charity campaigns that every ARMY can be a part of, since they focus on microdonations and they always have a non-monetary side activity for those who are not able to donate. BTS has noticeable charity work and ARMYs are always willing to follow their steps. OIAA helps ARMY follow BTS’ paradigm by connecting the fandom with small nonprofits that work with the people who truly need help, to make a difference in their lives. I applied to be part of the OIAA team after only five months of being ARMY.

What other causes would you like to champion?

I would love to make a registry for every crisis situation in the world. I would really like us to reach out to as many countries as we can and fill our charities map with more pins. Our fandom is huge and if we can make good use of our true potential, then we can really do good and leave a positive impact on the world.

Finally, as BTS member Yoongi (Suga) said in his speech at the Dear Class of 2020 event “One small person can dream the biggest dream, paint the largest picture, and make endless possibilities come true.”

I’m the smallest person in a small team of hardworking, loving people, part of the largest fandom in the world, but I feel that I can make a great change and this is why I'm here.

Eunice Jean, 22

Information designer, Philippines

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Eunice in a BT21 store.

How did you become a fan of the BTS?

Their story and their courage to tackle social issues in their songs made me ARMY.

Are you a fan of any other K-pop artists?

I listen to other K-pop artists like EXO but I don’t consider myself a part of their fandom.

As a Filipino, what are your thoughts on the local BTS fandom?

Filipino fans have nothing but genuine love for BTS and fellow ARMY. What I love about Filipino fans is how they are also politically aware and know who they should support. Their actions show how BTS music has a huge influence in their lives. I have heard stories of Filipino fans helping during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I have personally met them both online and offline. They are now my best friends because of their kindness.

Do you think that you could somehow use the help of the group to champion causes in the Philippines?

BTS is known to tackle social issues that my country can relate to.

The Philippines can learn so much from BTS’ music, such as the importance of destigmatising mental health and criticising the mistakes of the government.

What other causes would you want to help out?

As an activist, I personally would like to have projects that champion human rights. Human rights violations are common here in the Philippines, and I want to do more than join protests. I hope there are more human rights organisations that do charitable work with tangible results. Of course, this could be a longshot, but I hope that one day we would be able to help victims of different kinds of abuse. ARMY is a huge fandom that could, some day, help.

Aside from that, I’m OK with any type of cause. For me, what’s important is that we are reaching different people around the globe by partnering with organisations. I’m proud to be part of an organisation that is selfless and hardworking. Together, we can create a difference no matter how small or big our contributions are—as long as we put our hearts into it.

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Fati, 26

Online store manager, Saudi Arabia

How did you become a fan of BTS?

I had stumbled on a video clip of them talking about Yoongi (Suga) seeming cold and detached towards other members on the outside, but how he actually always takes care of them in subtle ways. That really touched me as I was often accused of being cold, unapproachable, and not caring of others, simply because people never want to look behind the surface, especially when you're an introvert.

That moment right there, when everyone was making jokes and teasing Yoongi, I just couldn't fathom how a "manufactured group" could know each other so well. I spent my whole weekend learning more about them, and the more I discovered, the more in awe I was of them. Their music, their message, their bond, their relationship with their fans—everything. After only three days, I already counted myself as ARMY, followed BTS content on Twitter, and actively engaged with it.

Are you a fan of any other K-pop artists?

I really love Epik High! I listen to a lot of their music and other content such as Tablo's podcast; I admire him a lot as a person.

What is it like being a member of the BTS fandom in the Middle East?

Contrary to what some people believe, there's a lot of ARMYs in the Middle East, as well as other Arab countries, and we are very passionate. There are, unfortunately, a lot of misconceptions about BTS, and many (often men and/or of older generations) disregard them because of their fashion choices and appearance.

But there has actually been a quite notable shift after their concert in Saudi Arabia last year, and many have changed their views after they saw how incredibly polite and respectful both BTS and their staff were towards our culture—something that, quite literally, never happens.

I cannot even begin to explain how valuable those moments were for the Arab and Muslim fans.

What made you want to join One In An Army?

It had been a dream of mine for years to be able to harness the collective power of a fandom to do good. I have always had a strong wish of making an impact in other people's lives and helping others, even in what some may perceive as small insignificant ways, because I believe that it could still give someone else hope, which perfectly aligns with OIAA's vision.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Lia on Twitter and Instagram.