By Kate Abbott
Daniel Seon Woong Lee, better known in Korea as recording artist Tablo, graduated from Stanford with a seemingly uncontroversial record: two English degrees, a bachelor’s in 2001 and a master’s in 2002. But over the past six months, an Internet campaign has launched attacking Lee’s credentials and, he says, threatening him and his family.
Lee, the frontman of premier Korean rap group Epik High, became aware of the allegations that he was not a Stanford graduate in March, when he began receiving threats to his Twitter account. The sources of the attacks were netizens–vocal participants in an online community–who question the validity of Lee’s Stanford degrees. An intervention from Stanford Registrar Tom Black and a letter from English professor Tobias Wolff did little to help stop the movement.
“Initially, we treated this as a routine check,” Black said. “But Lee is a moving target. Lee had an A average, and that’s the kind of thing they would stretch. Exaggerations get made when something like this goes viral.”
The campaign to discredit Lee’s degrees exploded. One of the largest antagonists, the netizen group “We Urge Tablo to Tell the Truth,” formed in May and now has more than 131,000 members, according to Korean journalist So-young Sung. The allegations range widely–that Lee has exaggerated his grade point average and that he claims he was best friends with Reese Witherspoon when she attended Stanford, for example.
“The Internet rumor was that my entire Stanford experience and all of my credentials are fraudulent,” Lee wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “Over time, this allegation spawned many others–that my entire family is a fraud, that I’ve stolen and lived someone else’s identity, et cetera–and has escalated to the point where my entire existence is being questioned. Some of the allegations are even based on fabrications of what I’ve said or done…it’s all very confusing.”
Black said verifying a person’s degree from the University is not an unusual practice, but he has never seen a case this severe. Black released a copy of Lee’s transcript, and when that did not prove satisfactory, he wrote a letter vouching for Lee’s attendance and graduation. Recently, Black allowed camera crews to film him printing a degree to show that none of the process is fraudulent.
“I’ve tried to put all the resources that are permissible into this,” Black said, “because only I can officially attest to his completion.”
Black believes people are disputing the evidence because “they couldn’t absorb it.”
“I think they assume someone would put his education to better use,” he added.
“My full transcript and Stanford’s official verifications have been on the net since June,” Lee said. “I’ve tried to get the truth across, but it’s been strangely difficult to do so, and anybody who has tried to help me has been attacked in similar ways.”
Since Lee’s transcript was posted online, it has been viewed more than 16,000 times, according to Black.
During his time at Stanford, Lee staffed in Okada as an ethnic theme associate from 2000 to 2001 and worked at the CoHo, where he also performed music.
Nadinne Cruz, the Okada resident fellow during Lee’s time on campus, remembers him as “very polite and cooperative” and “a serious student of literature.”
She described him as a quiet soul with an interest in playwriting. His career choice was surprising to her, given his subdued personality and professed love for classical texts.
“We had conversations about the state of the world and the human condition,” Cruz said. “We talked about identity. He was a Korean from Canada studying in America. He lived in many different worlds.”
Lee pursued these questions through writing and published a book in 2008–“Pieces of You”–composed entirely of stories written during his time in college. Generally, Lee has not shied away from his Stanford experiences, speaking of them often in public appearances.
Sung, who writes for the JoongAng Daily and has followed the diploma story, said Korean entertainment agencies often market celebrities’ academic backgrounds. Lee’s tendency to discuss earning both of his degrees in four years through the English co-term program doesn’t seem plausible to many Koreans, Sung said.
Lee is not the first celebrity to be targeted by viral campaigns. Two Korean entertainers “killed themselves because of malicious comments posted by some netizens,” Sung wrote in an e-mail to The Daily, referring to Choi Jin-sil in 2008 and Uni in 2007.
“This Tablo case is very closely associated with Korea’s deep-rooted culture of judging someone by their educational background,” Sung added. “I think Tablo mentioned Stanford quite frequently whenever he appeared in TV shows…and that made some netizens jealous of him.”
The accusers’ obsession is so strong that Sung received a litany of aggressive e-mails and phone calls after conducting an interview with Lee that some readers viewed as too “cooperative.”
There appears to be little, if anything, that will placate Lee’s attackers. He and the netizens have taken legal action against one another, but Lee acknowledged that discovering the “truth” might not play any part in his accusers’ motives.
“Some have expressed that they want me, and my family, to disappear,” Lee said. “To a degree, they may have already achieved what they want.”
“I actually talked to one of those netizens and he didn’t even know Tablo received an electronic transcript from Stanford,” Sung said. “Nothing will satisfy them. I think they just want to believe what they want to believe.”
Black said that he does not think the netizens will stop asking questions. He has stopped responding to e-mails concerning Lee.
“It’s all just rumor and innuendo,” Black said. “It’s not truth they’re after. It’s just to ruin his life.”
Lee maintains that he is not angry and even waited several months before pursuing legal action. He hopes a documentary airing this weekend in Korea (“Tablo Goes to Stanford,” on Korean network MBC) will vindicate his reputation.
“I ask that you don’t develop the impression that what is happening to me is in any way a reflection of my homeland,” he said. “Korea has been host to some of the most beautiful moments of my life. The event discussed here only reflects the possible downside of social media anywhere.”
But a cultural divide still seems to remain.
“We think about global citizens,” Black said, “but sometimes the rest of the world isn’t ready for them.”