Gay girl hoaxes: what does it mean for journalists and Syria’s bloggers?
While the media was getting to grips with the fact that Tom MacMaster had been masquerading as Syrian blogger Amina Arraf, Paula Brooks, the deaf lesbian editor of LezGetReal who initially spoke out against MacMaster, admitted to being a man.
The revelation that the editor of a lesbian site was really Bill Graber, a straight man living in Ohio and had "flirted" with Arraf, who blogged about Syrian politics and lesbian life was written by a married man living in Scotland seems fantastical.
Journalists have been asking whether this means they should be more cautious about trusting bloggersn in future: In the above clip Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow discusses the implications with Dr Rupa Huq.
The construction of an online persona is perhaps nothing new, as Monica Hesse points out in the Washington Post. Journalist Mona Eltahawy tweeted yesterday that she had been following Saudi Girl until 2005 when she turned out to be "Saudi boy".
But as these articles by NPR’s Eyder Peralta and Andy Carvin and the Electronic Intifada show, there was a very effective investigation once doubts were expressed following claims that Amina had been taken away.
MacMaster has made a number of statements, including one on his blog that suggest his decision to create the Amina Affaf persona was in response to the media’s failure to cover events in the Middle East.
Ethan Zuckerman tackles this claim on his blog, pointing out that the Syrian government has in fact closed its doors to western journalists.
..it’s hard to imagine a more orientalist project than a married, male American writer masquerading as a Syrian lesbian to tell a story about oppression and democratic protest.
Syrian bloggers have been angered by MacMaster’s actions and the implications for bloggers who genuinely need to protect their identity by using a pseudonym. Amira Al Hussaini who has collated some of the responses in this Global Voices post is critical of the media’s focus on the credibility of bloggers:
So some prankster somewhere in the world decided to fool the world, and now it is an issue for Syrian activists and their credibility; Arab gays and lesbians and their reality; and the Arab blogging community at large?
And bloggers in Syria are right to be concerned about the implications of the hoax for their safety, argues David Kenner in Foreign Policy who believes that MacMaster’s hoax has implications that
..go beyond the damaged credibility of news organisations that reported on Amina over the past several months. The story played perfectly into Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s effort to portray the domestic revolt as one guided by shadowy outsiders.