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Internet | World

May 6, 2005

Rumors and Innuendo

Gelf becomes the story as one of our articles sparks accusations and recrimination in an online message board for Liberians.

Carl Bialik

Two weeks ago, Gelf published an article about Liberian presidential candidate George Weah. As reported in the Liberian media, former soccer star Weah was coming under fire for including on his campaign résumé a degree acquired from a well-known diploma mill—in other words, he apparently never took any classes but instead paid a fee to get a bogus degree. Gelf analyzed the controversy, reviewed the history of diploma mills, and published extensive quotes from an interview with Weah's campaign manager.

Unbeknownst to us, the article sparked discussions on the Coalition of Concerned Liberians Forum online message board. The original thread has since been taken down. But Michael Wotorson, a participant on the message board who posts under the name Tatu-Sio, told Gelf on Tuesday that one of the participants known as Renford Walsh suggested Wotorson might have tipped Gelf about the diploma-mill story. Wotorson was under suspicion because he had previously fought diploma mills that were attempting to set up shop in Liberia (Gelf hopes to cover that in more detail in a future article). The dangerous—and false—implication: Anti-Weah forces were conspiring to smear the leading candidate in the international press.

(UPDATE: Walsh says he never speculated that Wotorson tipped off Gelf, but rather speculated that Wotorson collaborated with George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign, in exposing diploma mills.)

At this point, I'll make a few things clear: Gelf learned about the Weah degree scandal from scanning international papers, something we do for a regular feature called "Zooming In." No tip was needed: This piece of information was widely published online, though today it still hasn't been picked up widely by the international press. Gelf takes no position on the Liberian race, and in our article we pointed out that the diploma-mill scandal was relatively trivial. Furthermore, no one has provided a legitimate, specific retort to the claim that Weah's degree was not earned properly.

Nonetheless, sparked by the suggestion about this tip, Edward Doe, a Liberian-born Maryland accountant who posts under Doetex, emailed David Goldenberg, the author of the Gelf article, on Friday, April 29. Edward wrote to David, "May I ask you a question? How did you get hold of this story on Mr. Weah? I mean the one about his degree. It's my understanding a gentlemen by the name of Michael Tatu-Sio Wororson furnished you with this information. Is that true?" (He meant Wotorson; there are typos in many of the quotes from emails and message boards, and I've chosen not to (sic) them all.)

David replied, "Micheal Tatu-Sio Wororson has never contacted me, nor has anyone else with a direct connection to Mr. Weah (though we did speak with his campaign manager during the course of the article)." Doe promptly posted this email exchange to the message board here. That prompted a debate among forum members as to whether Doe had overstepped his bounds, and angry posts by Wotorson and his brother Ambrose Wotorson. Doe responded to critics claiming he was attempting to bash Wotorson, "If I was looking to discredit Tatu, why would I then post this correspondent which exoronerate Tatu?"

But then Doe took another course. David replied to a second email of his by saying, "I do not know who Mr. Wororson is, though i would like to learn more about him and why he would want me to know about George Weah's Parkwood diploma." Doe posted the email on the message board, but modified the quote to make it say the opposite of what it had said: "I do know who Mr. Wororson is. But, why he would want me to know about George Weah's Parkwood diploma." Then he started a thread titled, "Tatu-Sio And Ambrose On A Conspiracy To Mislead This Room And The World."

David, who has been traveling while all this was developing, saw this change in his email and was, understandably, angered, but unable to participate in full because he wasn't able to go online regularly. So he asked me to step in. I contacted Doe, Wotorson, and Wotorson's brother, Ambrose, whom Doe was also accusing. I also contacted others who had been active participants in the discussions. (All of these names can be confusing. To sum up: Doe and Walsh claimed that the Wotorson brothers are trying to smear Weah by spreading news of the degree scandal to the press. UPDATE: As noted above, Walsh says he never made such a claim.) According to site statistics posted on the CCL message board, dozens of people were writing and hundreds more were silently reading the discussions. Participants were mostly Liberian expatriates in the U.S., but some were also in Liberia. Because they had the ability to check the Internet regularly from one of the world's poorest nations, it's likely they have more money and power than the average Liberian. (Though one active participant emailed me to minimize the board's importance, stating, "Folks in this space take emselves' way to seriously when in fact they represent a microcosm of the Liberian landscape. And believe me, the chatter here has NO bearing whatsoever on what is happening at ground zero..aka Liberia." )

I emailed, called and private-messaged Doe. Because he wasn't getting back to me, I posted to the message board Wednesday to explain that the Wotorsons had nothing to do with our Weah article and that David and I had never heard of either of them before the article was published. I refrained from also stating that Doe had altered David's email because I wanted to give him ample chance to correct that himself.

I reached Doe by phone Wednesday evening and confronted him about the change. "I don't remember changing anything," he told me. If it happened, "It was an accident." Then he said, "Maybe when trying to copy and paste it [the email], maybe I did not highlight the right part." (That wouldn't account for the addition of the word "But" in Doe's altered version.) More from Doe: "I have nothing to hide. If I had any intent I would have altered the first email. I'm not a supporter of George Weah. I'm not a supporter of any political party. I am simply a bystander." He promised to check his email account the next day to find the original message David had sent him. I also told him I'd forward him the message that David had forwarded to me.

Then I waited Thursday for Doe to correct the record. Instead, he launched a new offensive, demanding an apology from the Wotorsons for claiming that he may have fabricated David's email (apparently he and others interpreted my silence on that matter as tacit admission that Doe had been honest in posting the emails). Finally, Thursday afternoon I decided this had gone on long enough and exposed Doe's fabrication.

Doe didn't back down, dropping the topic of the email to instead take a new tack: exposing that Ambrose and I both work in Brooklyn and therefore must be connected. He and others also began to question why I was posting instead of David (who began weighing in himself now that he's back from his travels). Meanwhile, the long-silent Renford Walsh returned to accuse Michael Wotorson of planting the original story in the Liberian press. Not much good came out of this, just a lot of fevered exchanges about nothing. This may have been the highlight: a debate about journalism ethics. Should journalists contribute their own opinion to the story? This was sparked by an observation that Gelf injected its own analysis into the Weah piece, something that happens in nearly all magazine pieces. (Read anything at Slate, for example.)

It's not news that message boards can be poisoned by inaccurate rants by one participant. So why are we writing about this tempest in an online teapot? Because for Michael Wotorson, it is rather serious. When I started delving into this story Tuesday, I messaged Wotorson (Gelf's first contact with him) and he wrote back suggesting I call him. He explained to me why this all matters. "Liberia is a very small country, so anything that you do that gets put out there in the public, everyone remembers," he said. Wotorson now works in Washington, but has family in Liberia, including Cletus Wotorson, a prominent geologist and politician, and he worried for their safety if a rumor developed that he was underhandedly attempting to smear Weah, which he said he wasn't doing (and which certainly wasn't the case with Gelf). "Edward Doe has essentially made me a target," Wotorson told me. "That's what I'm most concerned about."

Or, as he wrote on the message board, "This is EXACTLY how and why so many people in Liberia were killed during the war. One pathetic, jealous, crazed simpleton advances an idea, and a bunch of equally unprincipled morons jump on the bandwagon—except with automatic weapons and that special dipped ganja high."

Wotorson said he supports Weah opponent Varney Sherman but has nothing against Weah personally. "Weah's presence in the race energizes people to such a degree that it is incredibly healthy," Wotorson said. He had no interest in derailing the candidacy. "The only problem I have with Weah's candidacy is, I don't think he is qualified experientially to lead a country like Liberia given the serious problems we are in," Wotorson said.

More broadly, it's a case study of how a message-board participant with an agenda, or merely a desire for some attention, can manipulate the uncertainty of identity and of email text. (I don't know Doe's motivations because he stopped replying to my messages and refuses to admit he altered the email.) And when the message board draws from the limited pool of internet-connected people from an impoverished nation in an election emerging from 14 years of civil war, the stakes can be high.

Yet I hesitated to write this because it could taint the CCL message board, and that's not my intention. There is much healthy discussion going on, and many honest participants. Instant debate at such a crucial time for Liberia can only be a good thing—as long as that debate is honest. In this case the discussion was derailed by one participant with questionable motives, and I, too, got sucked in to posting with too much intensity. But I think the message board will move on to more-substantive discussions about Liberia's future.


As for Edward Doe, running this article probably won't settle things for him. Maybe now he'll claim that David and Carl are pseudonyms for Ambrose and Michael, or that the Wotorsons have hijacked the Gelf servers. But hopefully it will settle matters for the vast majority of readers on the message board who appear to be honest seekers of the truth. It almost surely won't repair the relationship between Doe and the Wotorsons.

I'll give Ambrose the last words, from a post yesterday: "Doetex: I just wish you had come clean earlier. At an appropriate time, we should talk via telephone, man to man, because this has gone too far. You and Michael were friends, and you did a great favor for my family by serving as DJ at oldlady Snoti's 86th birthday celebration several years back. So, I need to understand what motivated this dishonest behavior? You may not be in an apologetic mood, but I apologize for giving you a hard time. To Carlb and Gelf: I am so sorry you guys had to witness this. Liberians are exellent people, but as you can see, we sometimes get carried away with our passions. To fellow forumites: Please forgive me for exposing Doetex this way. I am usually very diplomatic and I am loathe to go after anybody, especially Liberians. I will take a hiatus, because I find this way too embarrassing for now."

—David Goldenberg contributed to this article.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Comments

- World
- posted on May 06, 05
99

Is there nothing else interesting in the world that you must write about what happened in a chatroom! You guys are a joke! Whatever happened to catching Osama, bringing Charles Taylor to justice, and all of the other story worthy of print! Give me a break!

- World
- posted on May 06, 05
Carl

99, to you this may all seem unworthy of an article. But you can't decide how other people would view what's written in the Liberian forum. And it is public and available to anyone online, and can be located by Google and other search engines. David and I couldn't simply stand by and let falsehoods be written about us and our magazine. If this had all been done privately by email, it never would have become an issue.

- World
- posted on Apr 19, 10
B. Soetoro

UIUC Professor’s Role in Liberian Shakedown Scheme


A UIUC physics professor acted in concert with Liberian thugs to shakedown a fledgling medical school that refused to pay a $6,000 a month bribe, documents filed in the US district court in Los Angeles allege.


George Gollin (George D. Gollin, George Dana Gollin), a tenured professor at scandal-plagued University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, aided corrupt Liberian politicians affiliated with rebel groups by spreading false stories in documents and presentations that St. Luke School of Medicine was a “diploma mill” operation, all to force the school to pay bribes, according to the complaint filed March 11, 2010.


Gollin, an avowed Marxist who has been under fire from religious and civil rights groups for his anti-Christian and racist statements, had previously been ordered by the university to discontinue his extortionate conduct and remove his defamatory materials from university internet servers. However, Gollin hooked up with adjudicated anti-Christian bigot and civil rights violator Alan Contreras to post his slander on an Oregon government server in an attempt to sidestep his employer’s mandate. The University of Illinois is also a defendant in the complaint.


Plaintiff St. Luke School of Medicine previously obtained a US$120 million dollar judgment against some of the same defendants named in the current complaint. Legal experts believe that Illinois taxpayers may find themselves on the hook for at least that amount, thanks to Gollin’s reckless and irresponsible conduct. So far neither the Illinois attorney general’s office nor the US Attorney’s office have commented on whether state or federal criminal charges may be lodged against Gollin for his part in the extortion operation.


Gollin’s wife, UIUC “Conflict of Interest Officer” Melanie Loots, has been heavily criticized for her part in the recent conflict of interest scandal that rocked the university and cost Chancellor Richard Herman and President B. J. White their jobs. She also was cited by the FDA for selling 386 mutant lab animals to the public for food.


Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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