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Dartmouth researcher shares how K-pop fans helped spread public health info during the pandemic

BTS poses in the press room with the awards for favorite pop duo or group, favorite pop song for "Butter," and artist of the year at the American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
BTS poses in the press room with the awards for favorite pop duo or group, favorite pop song for "Butter," and artist of the year at the American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we received a lot of public health guidance from the CDC, NIH and WHO. But another three-lettered group may’ve dwarfed their collective influence: BTS, the Korean pop band that has become a global sensation over the past few years.

That’s according to a recent Dartmouth College study into how pop culture icons’ social media messages influenced mask-wearing habits during the pandemic.

Professor Herbert Chang was a lead author on the research. He joined Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch to talk about his findings and any local implications they might have. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Well, first off, let me ask if you can explain your study further. What did it look at? And what did it find?

Herbert Chang: Just to preface, this was back when I was at [the University of Southern California] as a graduate student, and we had access to the world's largest Twitter data set on COVID-19.

One of the natural questions we had was, who was the biggest voice driving mask wearing — especially early in the pandemic? When I asked people this question they either say health organizations, or the more cynical people would say the politicians. But when we started looking at the data, it became apparent that a lot of these entertainment groups were actually having a strong voice in terms of driving public health messaging. What we wanted to see is A, who was the strongest voice, and then B, whether their diffusion of their messaging was a little bit different than politicians and health institutions as well.

Number of Twitter users by political affiliation who retweeted #WearAMask before (on left) and after the WHO director-general’s tweet referencing BTS on August 21, 2020.
Herbert Chang/ Dartmouth University
Number of Twitter users by political affiliation who retweeted #WearAMask before (on left) and after the WHO director-general’s tweet referencing BTS on August 21, 2020.

You were mentioning politicians. What did the study find out about messaging by non-politicized entertainers, musicians and how public health officials could use those messages for better public health outcomes during the pandemic?

What we found was basically, BTS was the strongest driver. So, the head of the WHO, when he used BTS in his tweets — we basically found 16 of his tweets contained BTS, and then he had 2,000 other tweets that didn't contain BTS — his 16 tweets that did contain BTS generated around 200,000 retweets. His other tweets generated about the same amount as well. From this, we can see that the increase in in virality, just by adding them, was more than 111 times.

And Herbert, you're an assistant professor of quantitative social science at Dartmouth. Take me to that initial spark for this particular study. ike what made you think, "Oh, God, it'd be so cool to look at how social media messaging by global superstars may have influenced public health practices during the pandemic."

So it really started at a personal level, this was during the height of the pandemic, when we were locked down. What I noticed among my friends, what was keeping us alive was was streaming on Spotify, engaging with digital content. For me, this was Taiwanese indie bands, because I'm from Taiwan.

But my co-author, Becky, she was a huge K-pop fan, especially around October of the first year of the pandemic. BTS really blew up because they were invited to the United Nations General Assembly to give a talk about mental health during COVID-19. This really resonated with me and my co-authors, and we decided to go and make this a paper.

Oh, that's so cool. Were you surprised by the results? Did you find unexpected things?

I think just measuring the extent of their influence was quite surprising. Because I would assume they would have a sizable presence; I wouldn't think that they were the biggest. But this is what we found.

Also, one of the things we looked at was how strong their communities are. We can imagine social media networks as just networks, users are connected to users. We could basically measure the strength of these communities as well using social network analysis algorithms. A big part of it is just the togetherness of of these K-pop communities really drove their message, like, not just far and wide, but also deep as well.

Herbert Chang/ Dartmouth University
This map illustrates the percentage of increased viral boosts of COVID-19 public health tweets mentioning BTS, by state.

Well, we don't necessarily have anything on the BTS level in New England, especially in Vermont, New Hampshire. But what is the upshot for how these findings might tie in to public health here? How could New England public health officials maybe use this kind of research in the future?

I think a big part of this is how we can well how we can leverage perceived neutral third parties, or people with celebrity status, who have pre-existing audience markets to generate targeted interventions or targeted diffusion. Examples of this can include vaccines, if there's another outbreak of disease, and I'm trying to drive vaccine uptake this could be this could potentially be useful.

Yeah. And staying in the context of New England, do your findings scale down? Like in other words, if we had a figure who's well known in one state or one region or one community, could they be a valuable messaging resource?

One hundred percent. Local celebrities and entertainers definitely can be strong drivers of health interventions.

However, did your study find that people actually move beyond just keyboards when supporting global causes, like, you know, so-called hashtag activism? Do they do more than just click a like or share a hashtag?

I'm glad you mentioned that. Hashtag activism is always a big concern with these online movements. What we found was this type of online activity was matched with in-person donations. Once the pandemic hit, a lot of concerts that BTS held were canceled. The fans online organized themselves to donate, basically, these refunds to different causes. One is the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Also to UNICEF as well. And this summed to more than $3 million or $4 million in total donations, often all in the span of a few days. This is all from from this type of grassroot organization from using social media.

It doesn't seem like we as a country are becoming less polarized. We're sort of seeing more and more misinformation online. And in one interview, I read that you had said that fandoms can act as powerful catalysts for both online and offline collective action on a global scale. What role do you think that those sorts of nonpartisan influencers will play going forward?

This is a particularly interesting question with the elections coming up in a year. One rule is to encourage people to fact check. One of the biggest factors for misinformation spreading, at least the studies show, is just people aren't spending enough time to just think about what they're reading. If in a similar way, celebrities or entertainers can nudge people to really think about what they're reading that could improve the uptake of quality information. Yeah, just take a moment to think more and have entertainers spread what the best practices should be.

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