Once upon a time, I wrote about some of the serious downsides of cyber vigilantism. Yes, it can give a voice to those who suffered an injustice and the system either doesn’t care or doesn’t want to do its job. It can make sure that a wrongdoer gets his or her comeuppance. But it can also incite vicious mob mentality and take it to absurd extremes. While few such cases make a big splash in the U.S., in the most wired country in the world, South Korea, these cyber witch hunts have been accused of driving actresses and singers to suicide, and the incessant fury of the online hordes can splash into the popular media with toxic effects. Take for example the instructive story of Dan Lee, a.k.a Tablo, a rapper whose online harassment became a national news story after he was accused of forging his Stanford degrees and dodging the draft, despite his Canadian citizenship exempting him from compulsory military service. In response, Lee had the media ask Stanford to print out an official transcript for him and the university gladly produced it. Yet, the attacks continue and he is still declared to be a fraud in a style not at all dissimilar from the birther movement. But why was he being harassed?
Leaving aside the various dramas and the cast of rather sketchy characters profiled many times already, one of the key issues here is that in the online world, the mob follows a narrative that motivates it into action, not a set of facts per se. Obviously, not everything you see on the internet is true because after all, the internet hosts the musings of the Time Cube guy and at least a dozen retellings of all the elaborate conspiracy theories that were forcefully crammed into the Illuminatus Trilogy. Ordinarily, that pseudoscience, postmodernist New Age woo, and conspiracy mongering would simply lay there in forgotten or obscure corners of the web because it needs some sort of catalyst to take off and ensnare its followers and prophets. And these things certainly can and do find disciples who are either confused by science they want to understand but can’t quite grasp, or will not accept as valid for whatever reason, those who want to seem scholarly and profound without putting in all that much effort into either, or those eternally paranoid that someone is out to get them. Nasty tales about a celebrity are even easier to embrace, especially in a culture like that of South Korea, where any mediocre high school student shouldn’t end up getting a graduate degree from Stanford with a good GPA then do music.
In fact, most of the rage regarding Lee was about his education and how it should’ve been impossible for him to get good grades at an elite college since by all accounts he was a do-nothing in school. His critics seem to be incapable of considering that he may have demonstrated a talent that was interesting to Stanford and took his studies seriously when he realized that this time, grades are serious business. Getting into elite colleges in the U.S. is not a matter of having the right test score or having the right GPA, or joining enough clubs. But in many people’s minds, that GRE/SAT/GPA/extracurricular digit combination is like some sort of numerological incantation that opens the doors to Ivy League institutions and life-long prosperity. This is why parents will all too often drive themselves and their children crazy with endless study and college prep tests, especially when we’re talking about Asian cultures where the right test score can determine your path in life. For some of Lee’s most outspoken tormentors he either cheated by getting into Stanford, which means that their kids’ admission to an elite school would now be meaningless, or he lied and never went to Stanford which would mean they’re doing everything right with their kids. And so they chose to believe the latter because it required no change on their part and no reevaluation of their priorities or their parental style, just verbally crucifying a rapper.