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.