The one-two punch of A Gay Girl in Damascus, the Syrian lesbian blogger who turned out to be Tom MacMaster, 40, an American, married man in Edinburgh, and the Lez Get Real editor Paula Brooks, the deaf lesbian mom who was actually a retired construction worker in Ohio named Bill Graber, 55, opened up all sorts of avenues of debate.
Who has the right to tell the story of the lesbian community? The Syrian community? How will this affect bloggers in the Middle East? What does this say about anonymity online? What does this mean for journalism?
As journalists, we’ve been dwelling on that last question. We were taken in by both MacMaster and Graber, but we also tracked down the truth about both of their identities. What did we do wrong and what did we do right? Here are some of the lessons we learned:
1. Question anonymity with rigor.
Pseudonyms are sometimes necessary to protect identities online, especially in repressive regimes like Syria, or in communities of people that face mistreatment. But sources who use pseudonyms should still provide enough identification so that journalists can trust the person is giving accurate information.
Many media organizations, including the Post, interviewed “Amina Arraf” of A Gay Girl in Damascus over e-mail. No one met her, asked her for a photo, or spoke to her on the phone.
Burned once, the Post was more cautious when accepting Paula Brooks’s identity. We asked for a driver’s license to verify her identity. That license wound up belonging to Bill Graber’s wife.
2. The seemingly impossible is always possible.
Questioning Paula Brooks’s identity seemed absurd. Two men pretending to be lesbians flirting with one another, unaware the other man was pulling off the same hoax? How often does that happen?
3. Develop ‘network literacy.’
We concentrated on unraveling the two stories with the help of our great researcher, Jennifer Jenkins, but there were other folks working in conjunction with us, and we gleaned quite a bit of information from their work.
We followed along with the conversations on Twitter in which people were regularly asking questions about A Gay Girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real. Theories and clues could also be found in the comments of countless blogs, particularly in Liz Henry’s blog Book Maniac.
That “network literacy” spurred on our search. The phrase comes from Jillian C. York, the director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She defines it as “the ability to better identify and use information gleaned from online networks.” It’s a skill we we hope to hone as we report stories going forward.
4. Don’t give up on old-fashioned journalism.
The long-standing debate of bloggers vs. journalism has always missed the point. There are tactics to be borrowed and learned from each process. While network literacy got us far, discovering the identities of MacMaster and Graber meant relying on the investigative itch that has always been behind great journalism. Jennifer worked for hours on employment and property record searches, filing FOIAs and hunting down old court cases. We called and spoke to MacMaster and his wife at least three times a day — sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes for an hour at a time. When we weren’t calling the couple, we were on the phone for hours with their family and friends asking everything we could about their past and their personalities.
As for Graber, he finally came forward and told us his story, in part, because Elizabeth had built up a relationship with him on the phone and by email over the course of that week. She put in her time, and when finally the proof pointed to the truth — that Paula Brooks was also a man — Graber told her, “Okay, it’s the story of a lifetime, and you can have it.”
5. Everyone has a footprint online.
Tom MacMaster tried to remain separate from Amina, and yet there were more than a few places he slipped up: when he used the same photo from his wife’s album on Picasa — an online photography site — on Amina’s blog, chatted on the same forum as Amina, did not hide his IP address, and gave out his physical address. It’s getting harder and harder to stay anonymous online.
6. Question why you’re focusing on the story.
Confession: Journalists can like a good story too much, especially when the story seems to contradict perceptions they have. A Gay Girl in Damascus hit all the sweet spots: a person (particularly one with a pretty face) who is an underdog (in this case two underdogs: a gay girl and a girl in a tumultous country) and a situation that’s not as it appeared to be (the hoaxes).
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the blog Electronic Intifada, also ferreted out MacMaster and his wife’s names and revealed them online. He said he had been disappointed by the media’s response to the story. “She was a beautiful, delicate-featured, Western-looking girl who seemed to like to do all the things that Western people like to do. [That] was what made her attractive whether or not that’s at all what Syrian women want to do. ... She was an idealized image of what we can and want to feel sympathy with.”
7. Be suspicious and admit defeat as soon as possible.
We made mistakes in this story. We’re probably going to make mistakes again. And it’s not because we aren’t trying to do our job well. It’s because people are trying to trick the Internet, and that doesn’t just include men play-acting as lesbians. Marketing firms create videos that purport to be reality, when they’re really just hyping a product. Pranksters create stories designed to appeal to the viral mindset. Governments and businesses are creating social media profiles to hawk the party line.
We need to be suspicious of everything and trust those suspicions.
Sometimes we’re going to fail. The only solution we can find right now is to be as transparent in what we know and what we don’t know. And admit when we’re wrong.
Journalism is becoming more and more a conversation. I’m glad we get to take part in it.