On Sunday, A Gay Girl in Damascus turned out to be a married man in Scotland. On Monday, another lesbian blogger admitted that “she” was actually a male retired construction worker in Ohio. Both men wrote as women, they claimed, to be taken more seriously.
Things began to unravel for the fictional Amina Arraf, who purportedly blogged from Damascus, when someone posted on her blog that Amina had been arrested by Syrian security forces. While her supporters searched for her and petitioned the Syrian government for her release, questions started to crop up: Had anyone met the blogger IRL? That’s Internet shorthand for “in real life” — and the answer was no.
A trail of digital clues led not to Amina Arraf but to Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old married American living in Edinburgh.
A day after MacMaster admitted to faking Amina, Bill Graber fessed up to inventing lesbian blogger Paula Brooks, the supposed editor of the Lez Get Real Web site. The admission devastated the site’s large and loyal LGBT following.
These men were lying — which is different from not being completely open about who you are on the Internet. Their extensive fictions wasted the State Department’s time, hurt online friends who trusted their stories and may have exposed the identities of anonymous bloggers in Syria. And now they are poised to claim an additional victim: anonymity online.
One Syrian writer who goes by the pseudonym Daniel Nassar wrote that now, “editors from across the globe [need] . . . to verify if I’m a real person or just another fake character like Amina; the trust between foreign media and those activists, who are needing any support they can get to continue their brave struggle, is gone forever because of Amina.”
If the revelation about Amina helps to further derail anonymity on the Web, we will wind up losing much of what makes the free and open conversation online such a powerful force. The dramatic events of the Arab Spring and the tumult still unfolding in the region have served to illustrate the need for anonymity, just as MacMaster’s deception highlights the downside.
In Amina, Western readers and journalists thought they had found a voice to explain the complicated events unfolding in Syria, much as they had looked earlier this year to bloggers in Tunisia and Egypt to provide detailed, personal accounts of the uprisings in those countries. MacMaster’s deception only added to the confusion surrounding the situation in Syria. It is a country that foreign journalists are barely able to enter, and a place where both bloggers and the government have used technology and pseudonyms to control and manipulate the news throughout the Arab Spring.
Online fakery can be truly dangerous. Judith Timson, a columnist at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, saw in MacMaster shades of a recent criminal case in Canada in which a man assumed a false name in an online chat room and encouraged a young woman to take her life — which she did. In another case, in 2006, Missouri mom Lori Drew allegedly posed as the character of a young boy who flirted with and then dumped a 13-year-old friend of Drew’s daughter. The teenage girl also committed suicide.