It was Friday night, May 22, 2009, and one of New York City’s most storied music venues, the Fillmore at Irving Plaza, was sold out. The line stretched all the way down Irving Place, turned the corner onto East 16th, and kept going. People had come from as far away as Michigan, Toronto, and Ohio, but they weren’t lined up for the latest indie darlings or house music sensation. They’d come to see an improbably successful Korean trio named Epik High, which as far as anyone could tell was the first Korean hip hop act to attract a mainstream American audience.
The group was headed by a skinny 28-year-old named Dan Lee, and when he danced onto the stage that night the audience started dancing with him. Lee—whose nom de rap is Tablo—had a puckish charm, a sly grin, and a reputation as a genius. In South Korea, Lee was already a superstar. He had released four number one albums with Epik High and published a best-selling collection of short stories in both English and Korean. Talk show hosts almost always found a way to mention that he graduated from Stanford in three and a half years with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English. Though that would probably count against a rapper in the US, back home he was lionized as a symbol of success.
Now the group was building a fan base in the States. In addition to its New York show, Epik High had sold out major venues in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The crossover success was visible on iTunes, where the trio was soaring up the hip hop charts and would soon hit number one in the US, topping Kanye West and Jay-Z.
But then, at the height of the group’s fame, the comments sections of articles about Epik High started filling up with anonymous messages accusing Lee of lying about his Stanford diploma. In May 2010 an antifan club formed and quickly attracted tens of thousands of members who accused him of stealing someone’s identity, dodging the draft, and faking passports, diplomas, and transcripts. The accusations were accompanied by supposed evidence supplied by the online masses, who also produced slick YouTube attack videos. It was a full-fledged backlash.
By that summer, Lee’s alleged fraud had become one of Korea’s top news items. Death threats streamed in, and Lee found himself accosted by angry people on the street. Since his face was so recognizable, he became a virtual prisoner in his Seoul apartment. In a matter of weeks, he went from being one of the most beloved figures in the country to one of the most reviled.
But in fact Lee had not lied about his academic record. He actually did graduate from Stanford in three and a half years with two degrees. His GPA had been in the top 15 percent of his undergraduate class. The evidence marshaled against him was false. It was an online witch hunt, and last spring I set out to discover why it happened.
I first heard about Lee when editors at Stanford Magazine, a publication of the Stanford Alumni Association, called to tell me about the rapper’s plight. The university’s administration and the alumni association had tried their best to defend him, seemingly with little success. The editors asked if I would write an article about the controversy, and I agreed to. (I attended Stanford as an undergrad.)
I started by tracking down Lee’s classmates and spoke with four who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. They felt terrible about what had happened to their friend. He was smart, they all agreed, but what set him apart was his dedication to music. He could have taken a more traditional path after graduation—law school or consulting—but instead he chose to return to Korea to start a hip hop group. “It was a risky career choice,” says Conrad Lo, a former dorm-mate and now a product manager at Google. “Koreans didn’t even like hip hop back then.”
Sure enough, Lee struggled when he first returned to Korea. Epik High released two albums to little fanfare. Lee titled the third album Swan Songs, on the assumption that he’d have to get a real job after it failed. Instead the 2005 release was a hit and helped introduce Korean audiences to hip hop. It also turned Lee into a celebrity, and his star power only grew over the next five years.
The campaign against him took off on May 11, 2010, when someone formed an online forum titled TaJinYo, an abbreviation in Korean for the phrase “Tell the truth, Tablo.” The leader of the forum identified himself as Whatbecomes, indicated that he lived in the US, and explained that he was contacting news organizations in Korea and the States to inform them that Lee was a liar. Chief among the accusations was that Lee had fabricated his Stanford credentials.
Diploma falsification had been a sensitive topic in Korea for some time. In 2007 the chief curator of a modern art museum in Seoul was found to have fabricated a Yale PhD and was jailed for 18 months on forgery charges. The scandal prompted prosecutors to investigate at least 120 cases of diploma fraud, ensnaring celebrities, soldiers, and even a monk. “There are definitely more people out there,” one of the prosecutors told Bloomberg News. “We just can’t spot them.”
In that environment, the accusations against Lee seemed plausible. After all, it usually takes four years to complete a bachelor’s degree. A master’s normally takes another year or two. Lee had done it all in less than four. Students also typically write a thesis to attain a master’s, and yet Lee admitted that he never wrote one. (His program didn’t require a thesis.)
After entertainment gossip sites wrote about the anti-Lee site, TaJinYo’s membership swelled to more than 100,000. Not content to wait for more allegations to emerge, many forum members launched their own investigations into Lee’s past. Soon, in a birtherlike onslaught, Stanford professors and administrators were flooded with emails from people questioning Lee’s educational background. Thomas Black, the Stanford registrar, received 133 emails on the subject. Everybody wanted to know one thing: Was Lee telling the truth?
Forum members seemed to relish the digital inquisition. “We call this game <Tablo Online>,” wrote one heckler, who referred to himself as a Tablo Online player, as if it were a casual pastime to be enjoyed during work breaks. Whatbecomes expertly fanned the flames, threatening to reveal dark secrets about Lee and promising to unveil them slowly for maximum dramatic effect. It was, he said, “more fun that way.”
Whatbecomes began hinting at a broader conspiracy: The media was colluding to protect Lee, because he was part of Korea’s upper crust. But the average citizen could fight back. “By proving Tablo’s fraud this time, the deep-rooted symbiotic relationship [between the media and the rich] can be cut off,” he wrote.