Lying Liars Online

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 5:05 pm (UTC-4)
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Old Questions About Truthfulness in the Internet Era

Her name was Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omani, Amina for short, and for several days she was headline news.   As author of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus,” Araf wrote about the conflicts of living as a U.S.-born lesbian in Syria.  But now she was part of a different conflict – one possibly fatal.

Arraf’s frank discussions of sexuality and politics in Syria made her a popular read – and a target.  After all, she was living in a nation where homosexuality is illegal and criticisms of the government are not welcome.

And then last Monday, a scare.  In a post titled simply “Amina,” Raina Ismail – Arraf’s cousin – wrote:

“Amina was seized by three men in their early 20’s.  According to the witness (who does not want her identity known), the men were armed…One of the men then put his hand over Amina’s mouth and they hustled her into a red Dacia Logan with a window sticker of Basel Assad.  The witness did not get the tag number.  She promptly went and found Amina’s father. The men are assumed to be members of one of the security services or the Baath Party militia.  Amina’s present location is unknown and it is unclear if she is in a jail or being held elsewhere in Damascus.”

Another short update followed, detailing Raina’s frantic efforts to make contact with her cousin, to no avail.  Human rights activists, bloggers and journalists picked up the search for Arraf; very soon a Facebook group formed advocating for her release.  Her online girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria, was desparate for news.  But to all the world it just seemed as though Amina Arraf disappeared.

The truth was worse: Amina Arraf never existed.  She was made up.  She was a lie.

Within a few days of her alleged abduction, the story began to unravel.  Journalist Andy Carvin noted that nobody had apparently ever spoken with her except through text messages.  Amina’s Facebook profile disappeared, Raina’s email address proved fake, and Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London, told the BBC that photographs of “Amina” were actually of her.

One week after her “abduction,” the blog’s real author publicly identified himself as Tom MacMaster, an American aspiring fiction writer living in Scotland.

“She is me. She never really existed. I feel like I am in some ways the worst person in the world. I’ve hurt a lot of people, including people who thought of ‘me’, when I was her, as a good friend. I want to apologize clearly and explicitly and personally to Jelena Lecic, Paula Brooks, Sandra Bagaria and Scott Palter. Each of them, in very different ways, was hurt deeply by me and each of them will get a personal apology from me. Each of them is more than entitled to hit me.

“I didn’t mean to hurt them.”

Many people said they felt wounded by MacMaster’s deception – among them, Paula Brooks, whom McMaster personally noted above.  Brooks was the creator of the “Lez Get Real” blog – a site for news by and about lesbians – and MacMaster, posing as Arraf, had written for the site before launching the ‘Gay Girl’ blog.  (The two actually flirted with each other, all online.)  Except “Paula Brooks” was not a lesbian – she wasn’t even a woman.  “She” was actually retired U.S. Air Force pilot Bill Graber who admitted to the Washington Post, “I am Paula Brooks.”

We’re all told to be skeptical of what we see online, but it’s likely we’ve all been fooled one time or another.  It can be a humiliating experience – which explains just some of the reaction these revelations are provoking.

“To Mr. MacMaster, I say shame on you!!!” writes Sami Hamwi at Hamwi is a Syrian gay activist living in Damascus, and says ‘Gay Girl’ has caused genuine damage:

“There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country.  We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism.  Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest.  I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure.”

This is hardly the first time that someone, for some reason, played at being someone else on the Internet; nor is it the first time many people have been fooled.  In 1993, the early days of the web, Anthony Godby Johnson published his memoir, “A Rock and a Hard Place,” in which he details his struggles with abuse, AIDS and urban life.   But this “Anthony Godby Johnson” never existed – he was created by a woman named Vicki Johnson who first played at “being” Anthony on Internet bulletin boards and via email.  The 2010 documentary film “Catfish” details two film-makers as they come to learn a girl one had been flirting with was actually a middle-aged Michigan woman who fabricated an entire family on Facebook.  (And in an appropriate turn, the authenticity of the documentary itself has been called into question.)

“Amina” and “Paula Brooks” won’t be the last time people are tricked by Internet identity hoaxes.  Jillian York, a longtime Middle East and Internet freedom activist, now with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has spotted frauds before – she was among the first to raise serious questions about “Haystack” at a time it was being lauded by Time Magazine and the State Department.  Yet even York was fooled by Amina:

“I very much fell for Amina Arraf.  Why?  Well, first of all, I had spoken with her numerous times. Her knowledge of Syria stood up to my tests.   Her personality in private conversation was consistent with her personality on the public blog.   Friends claimed to know her (one even suggested she knew her “in real life” – looking back, the suggestion was rather vague, the boastfulness of someone who wants to get close to a story.)”

The Guardian newspaper is among many in referring to MacMaster’s “Gay Girl” as “a cynical hoax.”  But not all are as eager to condemn.   Alia Ibrahim, writing in Al Bawaba, calls the character of Arraf “a virtual heroine” – someone who, even though she was false, was able to speak truth in the stories she told:

“Whoever she really is, Amina has found a way to tell the world the story of deserted Quneitera and the Hama massacre and why she is confident what is happening in Syria now, is a people’s quest for freedom, and not the seed of a sectarian war.  Her name may very well be fake and the title ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ may have been chosen to attract, but behind Amina there is also a real writer whose sensitivity to and knowledge of the places imply is a young Syrian who really knows the story, and who has used all her skills to get the attention of the widest audience possible, which she undoubtedly managed to.

In the end it’s these human qualities – of trust, of wanting to believe something that may sound too good to be true, of fooling ourselves as much as being fooled by others – that guarantee this is a story that will roll around time and again.  It is a certainty that someone online right now is not who they seem to be, and others are being fooled.

Something to consider now and again.

Watch Tom MacMaster’s apology and explanation to The Guardian newspaper:

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