Liliane Khalil describes herself as an Atlanta-based journalist of Palestinian and Armenian heritage. She wrote on a Bahraini Web site, among other sites, had thousands of Twitter followers, and claimed to have conducted high-profile interviews with people such as Egyptian Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.
Suspicions were raised, however, after the photo she used turned out to be associated with another person (just as A Gay Girl in Damascus’s photo was) and some of her articles were found to be copied from Reuters. No person who knows her has come forward, and she appears to have stopped posting anything substantive to her blog (although she is still tweeting).
But should we be searching this hard for Khalil?
The question goes to the heart of the debate over whether there should be anonymity online.
Despite being duped by the Gay Girl in Damascus ourselves, Melissa Bell and I argued back in June that the dangers of anonymity do not outweigh the benefits.
Those dangers, for bloggers writing under autocratic regimes, remain very real.
A recent Harvard University survey of 98 bloggers throughout the Middle East and North Africa found that 7 percent of Middle Eastern bloggers were arrested and detained in the past year that nearly 30 percent were personally threatened.
Eighty-one percent of bloggers surveyed wrote in English, just as A Gay Girl in Damascus and Liliane Khalil did.
The arrival of Google Plus and their decision to enforce a “real names” policy also has people who do not live under autocratic regimes arguing the importance of anonymity online.
A blog called InfoTropism polled people about why they want to be anonymous online and then compiled a list of explanations, which included rape survivors or victims of stalking who do it for their safety, people who fear repercussions by an employer, and a high school teacher who said privacy was important to her career.
Another site, My Name is Me, similarly advocates for the freedom to choose the name one wants to use online. Under the list of those who would be affected if they were forced to give up anonymity are celebrities, people with disabilities, whistleblowers and young people.
What’s really at stake, writes Danah Boyd, a researcher at the Harvard center that conducted the study on Middle East blogger arrests, is: “people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously.”
Some would say that those who are attempting to track down Liliane Khalil should take these complaints seriously, too.
Perhaps Liliane Khalil, like A Gay Girl in Damascus, is not even close to who she says she is. And we may be better off knowing the truth.
But let’s hope that those who deserve to stay anonymous remain so.