Gen Z online activists are flexing their ability to outfox Boomer politicians and police
Boomers may write them off as trolls.
But Gen Z has reclaimed that word and is forging a new breed of "pop activism," which remixes the earnestness of Millennial social justice warriors with the zeitgeist of dank memes, hashtags, and K-pop fancams of Jennie from Blackpink, winking.
For instance, June was supposed to be a glorious comeback for President Trump, with his first public rally since America went into COVID-19 lockdown. But over the weekend of Juneteenth, the White House learned the hard way: You don't want to piss off the dance-meme dragon that is Gen Z (AKA Zoomers) or their K-pop stan partners in crime.
Doing the Macarena while fake-registering for Trump's June 20th Tulsa Rallyhttps://www.tiktok.com/@eleanorstoa
We all know the embarrassing aftermath. Trump's rally, which originally had "almost a million" ticket RSVPs, was attended by a scant 6,200 people. CNN, Washington Post, and the New York Times hailed these Zoomers as wily activists. K-pop stans, who had also mobilized en masse to reserve tickets, were heralded as "anti-racist heroes." Glowing articles were shared with glee on Facebook. On Twitter, Millennial leaders like AOC gave their stamps of approval.
Congresswoman AOC giving a shout out to Gen Zhttps://twitter.com/AOC/status/1274499021625794565
Meanwhile, there arose a subset of Boomer and Boomer-adjacent minds (note: usually NOT Trump supporters), who simply could not understand what these gosh-darned kids were up to.
The typical lookey-here-we-can't-stoop-to-their-level Boomer comment:
Boomer Exhibit AFrom a Boomer on Facebook
The I-could-have-done-it-better-than-these-whippersnappers Boomer comment:
Boomer Exhibit BFrom a Boomer on Facebook
At least one journalist bemoaned Gen Z's methods, sounding the this-is-what Russian-hackers-would-do-omg alarm: "...Those who pioneered them and who exploit them today often take pride in valuelessness," wrote Molly Roberts in her opinion piece for The Washington Post. "Surely it is better to troll to disrupt racism than to promote it... The whole story is cute and clever, but more than that it's sad—sad that this is the activism that feels most normal and most natural to those who grew up in the Internet age, sad that many believe it's the activism most likely to succeed in a battlefield already full of falsehoods, and sadder still that they may be right," she continued.
Contrary to what Boomers may assume...Gen Z isn't just playing around.
"We may live in a digital world that allows us to create fantasies on the Internet. But we're also aware of how to take these fantasies and make them reality," says CD + The Players, a rising influencer on Alt TikTok. "My local BLM protest is being led by high school students...a group of minors got on the Internet and made a plan."
Gen Z hasn't just played a huge part in documenting the protests; they've unapologetically recorded their conservative family members berating them and sometimes even kicking them out of the house. An oft-told joke in the comment sections: Gen Z is too scared to say anything when the barista f*cks up their drink, but has NO PROBLEM telling cops in riot gear to go f*ck themselves.
"It's hard for the older generations to understand it, because it's like a whole separate culture online," says Will Mahony, the brains behind #mannyflag, a wildly viral TikTok campaign.
Recently, Mahony whimsically mused to his 1.3 Million followers about how Gen Z could troll Fox News by starting a petition to change the American flag. Within 24 hours of the original TikTok, he and a friend decided to create the Manny Flag, featuring the mug of Manny Heffley of the Diary of A Wimpy Kid series.
The Manny Flaghttp://mannyflag.org/
Kids quickly began changing their profile pictures to the Manny Flag, repeating the mantra: "Whenever you see the #mannyflag, go and sign a petition"
"In a lot of ways, we...mess around and...make a lot of memes...but in the end we know that we are the future and we fight for what's right." says Mahoney. "We are able to unite millions of us under a common goal in literally hours with the power of social media."
It's precisely that swiftness, made possible by the viral nature of pop activism, that disorients many people. While virality definitely has some predictive markers, it's never 100% guaranteed that a certain meme will gain mass popularity. Even less guaranteed is whether the meme will remain similar to its original form or wildly mutate. Unlike the white-knuckled world of political spin and A/B-tested marketing (what Boomers are used to), pop activism is mutable, sometimes maddeningly so.
For Manny Flag, the initial idea has evolved in several ways, generating some tongue-in-cheek versions:
Gen Z is not feeling the American flaghttps://twitter.com/Eri60086918/status/1276876713654464512
The Manny Flag has also become paired with other political movements (such as #ACAB), which led to an official statement on the Manny Flag website that clarifies the flag is "a symbol of PEACE, and NOT to be radicalized."
But one of the hallmarks of Gen Z pop activism is that anyone and everyone can (and is implicitly encouraged) to build on previous successes, much like one would surf on the momentum of a meme. Much like works of art, in the world of memes, the audience's gaze becomes as much a part of the piece as the artist's initial intentions.
This horizontal authority (rather than top-down hierarchy) has often been denigrated by Boomers, who say it's no match for the juggernaut of traditional institutions of power such as cash-rich lobbying groups and political action committees.
"Trump and the media are very aware of us," says Ashley Vee, who has helped push forth a renewed #RIPTrump. "I personally think it's hilarious that some of his most formidable opponents can't even drive yet."
These young people have watched Vee's #RIPTrump Tik Tok over a million times. The video advises fellow activists to claim that any current footage of Trump was pre-recorded and that he actually died of an hydroxychloroquine (an antimalarial drug that Trump swore to be a cure for COVID-19) overdose.
Activism or Trolling?
For Boomers, this youthful pop activism often looks like mere trolling. Though trolling can be "valueless," it can also be wildly powerful, a tool used by either dystopian misinformation pirates in Siberia or by stoner mumble-rap fans who are spending quarantine in the basement of their mom's house.
Of course, that leaves a deeply incomplete picture of Gen Z pop activism.
"Older people never listened before, so now we're forced to use troll techniques," says Vee, expressing a sentiment echoed by many in Gen Z. Essentially: Don't hate the player, hate the game.
Donald Trump hugging a Manny flaghttps://twitter.com/YourZoomerNews/status/1278078788493025282
Boomers will decry "fake news" generated by Gen Z, all while laughing heartily at reruns of The Colbert Report. Boomers would never confuse biased reporting from Fox News with political skits on SNL.
And yet, they view Gen Z's over-the-top hashtags and Doja Cat dances annotated with political messaging as too similar to Trump's fake-news tweets. Virality is seen with suspicion because it seems "too easy" to manipulate, to share, to headline-skim.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest supporters of these rascally kids? The OG of online guerilla activism and radical transparency: the "hacktivist collective" Anonymous. With their Guy Fawkes gravitas, it may surprise Boomers how deeply Anonymous cross-pollinates and supports TikTok teens.
Even Anonymous is grooving to BTShttps://twitter.com/YourAnonCentral/status/1276975067541323776
The Intersection of K-Pop and Activism
In particular, K-pop stans have been written off by many online denizens as being a bunch of screeching, vapid airheads who create toxic silos where one group of K-pop fans will attack another group of Kpop fans over which group reigns supreme. Few would have guessed that these warring factions would unite for recent Black Lives Matter activism.
"Kpop fans are passionate about this sort of activism because the message that a lot of groups have is to express themselves and be themselves." says Ai⁷, a Kpop stan who was involved in boosting BLM activity on Twitter, as well as donating to the Match a Million effort for One in an Army⁷.
Kpop stans have raised over $1Million for social movementshttps://twitter.com/oneinanarmy/status/1269808529688481796
For Boomers, activism is a very narrowly defined sort of public action. Because K-pop stans are partaking in what many would consider "feminine, immature" activities, sexist and age-ist judgments have labeled them politically unaware (at best).
And yet the pastel stiletto nails of K-pop stan activism are formidable. Unlike paid-for-hire trolls and bots that move in mercenary ways, K-pop stans are tirelessly devoted and emotionally invested in their favorite K-pop stars.
"A lot of K-pop has political messages, a lot of artists discuss mental health and societal expectations," says Ai⁷. Also, "A lot of groups are acknowledging their influence and roots with American Black music... [Many K-pop artists] spoke out regarding BLM. Psy participated in Black Out Tuesday...because the groups acknowledge it, their stans acknowledge it."
Casual fans may not realize it, and Boomers definitely wouldn't know it, but to be a K-pop stan is inherently political. And add to that: "K-pop fans are literally the epitome of online organization, both in Korea and around the world," says CD + The Players. "This is something that has existed since the early 90s when...fandoms were mainly offline. The only thing the Internet did was just give them a bigger platform to do what they were already doing beforehand."
Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game
This is a brave new world, where constant WiFi has erased the boundaries that have previously defined "activism."
In this sense, Boomers are thinking like the redcoat officers of the British Royal Army, befuddled and horrified at the guerilla techniques of underdog Patriots during the Revolutionary War. The trolling techniques are not just for giggles, or even mischief. They come from a place of extreme practicality. Don't hate the player, hate the game.
Gen Z knows how to exploit algorithms in order to make mainstream media pay heed.
So you can call them: trolls, pop activists, online guerilla soldiers.
Just don't underestimate the sheer f*ckery that Gen Z can wreak.
The labels aren't the point for Gen Z.
The labels aren't the point for K-pop stans.
Because they will do what it takes.
And that's on periodt. (note to Boomers: periodt is spelled this way on purpose).