Source: Pinterest @httpkingtanboys via Revista Semana
This article was originally published in Spanish in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. Haz clic aquí para leer en español.
In Colombia, anti-government protestors have found an unexpected ally: fans of Korean pop music, or K-pop.
Since April 28, protests against the Colombian government’s policies have wracked the country. Police use of lethal force has drawn particular concern, both from Colombians and from international observers. Some users on Twitter have countered calls for reform with the hashtag #YoApoyoAMiPolicia, or “I support my police,” as well as other pro-government, right-wing, or anti-Indigenous slogans.
Followers of Korean pop bands soon hijacked the right-wing hashtags, tagging unrelated photos of their favorite singers and posting about police abuse. In effect, they made the hashtag unusable for those who wanted to use it for its intended purpose.
K-pop followers’ recent foray into politics is hardly their first. During last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, fans booked a high percentage of tickets for President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, failing to attend and leaving large sections of the stadium empty. Amid the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, local police departments created an app for people to submit videos of crime. K-pop followers instead inundated the platform with videos of Korean music.
The fanbase honed a new tactic when they took over the hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter—originally created by right-wing Twitter users—and later attempted to do the same with #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter.
In response to K-pop fans’ recent actions in Colombia, the Ministry of Defense released a press release describing their actions as an “attack” involving the “manipulation and ridicule” of “hashtags created for transparent dialogue on social media.” To label the tactics employed by K-pop fans as an attack to the detriment of dialogue is an exaggeration, to say the least.
To investigate the Ministry of Defense’s allegations of “non-transparent attacks,” we conducted an in-depth analysis of the hashtags used by pro-police social media users and later adopted by K-pop fans, such as #YoApoyoAMiPolicia, #YoApoyoAlEsmad (“I support the ESMAD,” Colombia’s anti-riot police), and #YoProtejoMiPais (“I protect my country”).
For our analysis, we used a methodology developed as part of a larger project led by the U.S. think tank Global Americans, focused on the detection and analysis of disinformation from foreign actors. We collected data on #YoApoyoAMiPolicia, both before and after it was hijacked by K-pop fans. The images below show that the hashtag was present in about 2,000 tweets on May 6, 2021, before fans became involved. Shortly after, the prevalence of the hashtag jumped to over 8,600 tweets and Twitter catalogued the tag as associated with K-pop.
Many of the accounts that began using the hashtag were those of institutions and people involved with the police. However, the hashtag gained strength thanks to users that are more difficult to identify given their use of pseudonyms and anonymous profile pictures. Some have posted over 1,000 tweets per week criticizing protestors or defending the government, signaling likely inorganic behavior.
Based on our research, the Ministry of Defense has it wrong. Inorganic, pro-police accounts were already manipulating the #YoApoyoAMiPolicia hashtag before K-pop fans became involved. Rather than representing “transparent dialogue,” the hashtag was already associated with inorganic behavior. Public servants, politicians, and speakers for government institutions should withhold from making statements like that of the Ministry of Defense. Otherwise, they might fall into the same trap as Chilean officials in 2019, when they used big data and a flawed intelligence report to claim that foreign actors were behind mass protests in the country.
In the worst case, statements like that of the Ministry of Defense will increase polarization in a country where political disagreements all too often slide into violence.
Andrés Peña Galindo holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Universidad del Rosario in Colombia. Gustavo Rivero Ortiz holds a M.A. in international studies from the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. Both are collaborators with the Global Americans research project “Region II Monitoring of Foreign State Actor Disinformation in Latin America.”