Reporting the Arab Spring: the mirage of the ‘authentic voice’

October 3, 2011

I’m breaking the radio silence on the blog to post the introduction to my latest book chapter for Mirage in the Desert: Reporting the Arab Spring. (Not to be confused with Mirage in the Dessert…that is something entirely different.)

My chapter uses the case of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, (a hoax which purported to chronicle the uprisings in Syria earlier this year), to explore how journalists are approaching the challenges of a world where the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ are becoming increasingly blurred.

(It’s an issue that seems relevant at the moment. Only last week, an ITV documentary about Colonel Gaddafi’s support of the IRA mistakenly represented material from a computer game as footage from a secret film.)

If you want to read more, come to the launch next Tuesday and buy yourself a copy of the book. It also features contributions from more illustrious types such as Alex Crawford, Lindsey Hilsum, Jon Leyne and Kevin Marsh among others.

In the meantime here is your teaser…

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A ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’, the mirage of the ‘authentic voice’ and the future of journalism

Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari regarded herself as the “ultimate outsider”. On her blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, she claimed to be 35 years old, female, half-American, half-Syrian and gay.

Inspired by the revolutionary fervour of the “Arab Spring”, her blog posts compellingly documented her personal life as a gay woman and her involvement in the political protests against the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.

In April 2011, a post describing how her father had stopped Syrian security services from arresting her led to coverage in the Guardian, CNN, CBS and Global Voices.

Amina Araf was a pseudonym which had been adopted to conceal her identity, but based on her blog posts and email correspondence with journalists she was represented in the media as an “authentic voice” for the movement against al-Assad’s repressive government.

She was “an unlikely hero of revolt in a conservative country”.

Too unlikely, as it happened. Several months later Amina Araf was unmasked as a fictional character created by Tom MacMaster – a 40-year old American studying at Edinburgh University.

In an apology to the blog’s readers, the postgraduate student maintained that “while the narrative voice may have been fictional”, “the facts on this blog” were “true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground”.

He believed he had created an “important voice” for issues which he “felt strongly about”. Members of the gay community in the Middle East, however, claimed that he had put people at risk, while journalists criticised his“offensive”, “arrogant” and “Orientalist” fantasy.

MacMaster’s fictional blog had spiralled out of control but his experiment had inadvertently exemplified the difficulties of performing journalism in the digital era.

By removing the physical body and collapsing the geographic, the internet allows us to alter, switch, conceal and simulate our identities more easily and to a greater extent than we have done in the past. (See Turkle, Life on the Screen, 1990).

In contexts such as the Syrian uprising, when it was difficult for journalists to access individuals in “real life”, many reporters were reliant on the digital representations of individuals as a starting point for their journalism.

The story of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” highlights how journalists and readers alike can be seduced by the mirage of the “authentic voice”online, but it also demonstrates that traditional journalistic fact-checking and verification practices were inadequate despite news organisations’ emphasis on them in the aftermath.

Uncovering “the truth” of Amina Araf’s blog was, instead, made possible by a collaborative investigation and verification process facilitated by online networks.