On Monday, June 6th, a post appeared on the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” announcing that Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the “girl” in question, had been kidnapped, possibly by Syrian authorities. Bloggers, including my friend and colleague Jillian York, reported on Amina’s disappearance, and some of her readers and supporters began advocating for her release on Twitter, using the hashtag #FreeAmina. A Facebook group supporting her release gathered more than 14,000 followers.
“A Gay Girl in Damascus” was a fairly new blog, launched with a series of long autobiographical posts in February. The blog gained popularity in late April, with a dramatic post, “My Father, the hero” that detailed a visit from Syrian security forces who wanted to arrest the blogger for Salafist sympathies, and her father’s defiant response. Two weeks later, a writer in The Guardian described her as “an unlikely hero of revolt in a conservative country”. The article raised her profile and brought her to the attention of CNN and other news networks. It also offered an explanation for how Amina had avoided arrest thus far, suggesting she had relatives in the Syrian government and in the Muslim brotherhood.
Not everyone reacted to news of Amina’s detention by lobbying for her release. Some began questioning whether Amina actually existed. Liz Henry, a journalist and blogger who’s spent a great deal of time thinking about fictional blogging (she led an excellent session at SXSWi in 2007 on the topic), posted about her doubts on June 7th, the day after Amina’s detention was announced. Her uncertainty was crystalized by the discovery that Sandra Bagaria, who had been giving media interviews as a close friend and possible girlfriend of Amina’s, had never met Amina in person. Liz wrote:
I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support.
But it now turns out that Bagaria has never met Amina in person. They had an online relationship. As I see it, this could indicate various possibilities:
– Amina is as she appears to be, a talented writer living in Syria; perhaps with a different name and with the names of her family members obscured.
– Amina is someone else entirely in Syria.
– Amina is someone else; anything goes. Amina could be Odin Soli [a blog fiction writer who’d previously created a character “Plain Layne“] for all I know. In fact, wouldn’t it fit all too neatly?
– Amina is Sandra Bagaria.
Andy Carvin of NPR, who’s been tirelessly curating tweets about the Arab Spring since January, cast a wide net online searching for anyone who’d met Amina and person and came up empty. On June 8th, a woman in Croatia announced that the photos appearing on the web of Amina were actually pictures of her, taken from her Facebook account. While these doubts began to pile up, the depth and complexity of Amina’s online presence made it hard to doubt her existence entirely. On June 9th, Carvin tweeted, “I just don’t see anyone creating a sleeper-cell online persona years ago, waiting for unrest to start just to blog it. Some truth somewhere.”
Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty from Electronic Intifada and Liz Henry began sharing data and unraveling Amina’s identity, with help from Carvin and Jillian York. Henry’s post “Chasing Amina” and a long post on Electronic Intifiada connect the Amina persona to Thomas J. MacMaster, a 40-year old American student, and his wife Britta Froelicher. On June 12th, MacMaster posted an “apology” to Amina’s blog, acknowledging his authorship and making it clear that Amina was a fiction he created.
I hadn’t paid very close attention to the story this week – I’ve been away from my office all week, in meetings and at a conference. I’d been aware there was uncertainty about the abduction story, and was keeping an eye on Global Voices’s coverage of the story, wondering whether we would need to modify or retract our earlier story. (Jillian updated her original story and ran a story on doubts about Amina’s identity on June 9th.) But MacMaster’s “apology” caught my attention:
I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.
I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.
This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.
However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.
That’s not an apology. That’s a pathetic, self-serving attempt by MacMaster to justify his actions.
MacMaster is on vacation in Istanbul and thus far, appears to have given only one interview on this matter. It’s likely we’ll get more information about his motives in future conversations. But his statement here is quite informative. He believes that writing as Amina allowed him to call attention to the dangers faced by activists and by GLBT people in Syria in a way that would reach western audiences. He’s critical of what he perceives to be shallow coverage of the Middle East and believed that creating a compelling heroine would provide a key “hook” for a story.
What’s peculiar about this is that there’s been an enormous amount of western media attention paid to the Arab Spring. While most news outlets were late to the Tunisia story, the Egyptian revolution was covered in depth, and key figures like Wael Ghonim have received widespread media attention in the US. While there’s been significantly greater coverage of events in Libya (an armed conflict where NATO forces are involved, something that invariably correlates to media attention) than to other revolutions, there’s been solid, steady coverage of events in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. We could all use more coverage of the Arab Spring and less of Anthony Weiner, but this seems like an odd moment to complain about undercoverage.
To the extent that there is undercoverage of Syria, it’s worth remembering that the country has closed its borders to foreign journalists. As I observed in analyzing media coverage of the 2009 Iran green movement protests, when countries close themselves to international media, there’s a tendency to report stories relying heavily on social media. Syria was the right place for a hoax in no small part because journalists were hungry for any information coming out, particularly information that could help readers and viewers connect to the story. Earlier today, Syrian/American anchor of CNN International Hala Gorani tweeted: “The most infuriating aspect of Tom MacMaster’s ‘hoax’ is claim media’s interest in #Amina reveals superficial coverage of Mideast. Please. Media were interested bc MacMaster’s lie put a human face on a story we cannot cover in person. That is why there was interest.”
Gorani was searching for a human face because it’s far more compelling to tell the story of a revolution in terms of individual struggles than in the language of mass movements. As humans, we’re wired to connect with personal stories. The story that helped spark the Tunisian revolution was the story of an individual fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose frustrations with his personal situation and his country’s shortcomings led to his self-immolation and death. We understand the Egyptian revolution through Wael Ghonim, and the tragedies of the Green Revolution through Neda Agha Soltan. These stories can obfuscate as well as illuminate – in the retelling, Bouazizi gained a college education and a computer science degree because those inaccurate details helped the story better represent the tensions and frustrations within Tunisia. Understanding a revolution through individual stories is always imperfect – the details of an individual life can’t completely represent the whole – but they allow us to connect to stories in a deep, elemental way.
Participatory media offers the possibility that an individual can tell her story to a global audience. There’s a gap between potential and reality. Speak in a language that’s not widely understood and your potential audience shrinks dramatically. And while we celebrate the possibility of social media enabling many to many communication, it’s probably better understood as enabling one to some, as most of us command fairly small audiences of friends and family.
To reach a broader audience, participatory media needs a helping hand. That’s what Nawaat, an activist media site run by Tunisian dissidents, did for the protesters in Sidi Bouzid. They translated and subtitled Facebook videos from Tunisian Arabic (a dialect that borrows heavily from other Mediterranean languages and isn’t understood outside the country) into French and Arabic, organized them into easy to follow timelines, and made it possible for Al Jazeera to use their footage… which made the revolution visible not just to people throughout the Arab world, but to fellow Tunisians, who otherwise wouldn’t have known what was going on given the country’s effective censorship of domestic media.
Global Voices has been trying to amplify participatory media since our inception in 2004. By aggregating, contextualizing and translating citizen media, we try to make Hala Gorani’s job easier, offering accounts from people who are telling their own stories in their own words. Even in a country like Syria, where blogging can be a dangerous activity, real, non-fictional people write about their perspectives and experiences – we’ve published two dozen substantial stories drawing from accounts of people in Syria and Syrians in exile since the Arab Spring began, and linked to hundreds of individual accounts.
MacMaster’s “apology” refers to “the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism”. Perhaps we’ll learn more about the target of his critique when he discusses his motives at more length. Part of the post-colonial critique Edward Said offered in “Orientalism” was a recognition of the danger of understanding the Middle East through the frames, accounts and preconceptions of Westerners, who consciously or unconsciously tend to define the Orient as “other”. As a response, we might choose to read western accounts of the Middle East with a critical eye, or to seek out more accounts from people of the Middle East to understand the region. But 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.
By speaking in this assumed voice, MacMaster tells us, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Some gay Syrians disagree. Writing on GayMiddleEast.com, Daniel Nasser explains, “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know.” Further, by calling attention to gays and lesbians in Syria, he complicated the lives of people on the ground, worried that this could become an excuse for their arrest and disappearance. “This attention you brought forced me back to the closet on all the social media websites I use; cause my family to go into a frenzy trying to force me back into the closet and my friends to ask me for phone numbers of loved ones and family members so they can call them in case I disappeared myself.”
On the same site, Sami Hamwi rejects MacMaster’s apology saying, “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.”
I don’t think there’s much uncertainty about this last point. MacMaster’s project is going to complicate the work of anyone who tries to bring marginal voices into the dialog through citizen media. The question I’ve been most often asked since founding Global Voices is a question about authenticity: “How can we know that any of these people blogging and tweeting are real people?”
It’s a tough question to answer. At Global Voices, we’re reporting on the conversations taking place, not the facts on the ground – this distances us from the challenge of verifying individual facts, but doesn’t free us. As it’s become more common for pro-regime supporters in Syria or Bahrain to write in pro-regime fora, part of offering context is helping readers navigate a web of identities – people who we believe to be speaking in their own voices and people we worry are misrepresenting themselves. One of the best tools we have is iterated reputation: it’s cheap and easy for someone to appear on a message board, claim to be someone they’re not, offer a couple of posts and leave. It’s harder to construct an identity for months or years and establish credibility with that voice. Yet that’s what MacMaster did, and we, like everyone else, will be taking a close look at how we’re representing the identity of the people we’re featuring on the site.
The challenge is even harder for someone like Andy Carvin, who’s working with breaking news reports. In this case, verifying facts is the key issue, not just understanding the dynamics of the conversation. Much of Carvin’s work involves chasing down the identity of sources and getting confirmation from multiple voices. This is complicated by the fact that, when a revolution or a natural disaster comes to a place, people who’ve never spoken before enter the conversation. Iterated reputation may be impossible to establish when someone offers details on a plane crash or an earthquake as that person never previously spoke to an audience beyond a small circle of friends. This became a huge problem in the Ossetian war, where new blogs sprang up like mushrooms after rain, offering detailed “eyewitness” accounts that strongly favored either a Russian or Georgian interpretation. Crisis Media platform Ushahidi has been working on the problem of algorithmically verifying these sorts of reports, looking for cross-confirmation and trying to identify more and less believable reports, as part of a project called Swift River.
Needless to say, none of this is easy, whether individuals or algorithms are doing the work. Part of the success of MacMaster’s deceptions is that he had so many details right. Jillian York, whose partner is Syrian and who knows the country well, wrote, “[Amina’s/MacMaster’s] 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).” And, as York points out, the nature of MacMaster’s deception made it impossible to verify. Journalists can’t get into Syria, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that an out lesbian might be visible, but disguising her name.
Both citizen and broadcast media got Amina’s story wrong. The Guardian, in particular, has much to answer for: the May 6th story by “Katherine Marsh” lionizing Amina doesn’t mention the reporter never met Amina in person. Given the use of a pseudonym to protect the reporter and a Damascus byline, it’s hard to read the story as anything but a verification of Amina’s identity, implying the reporter met with her subject. As of this morning, the Guardian has run a long story on MacMaster’s identity, but hasn’t amended, corrected or retracted the May 6th story. Today’s story includes an explanation of the initial interview, which I think should have accompanied the original piece: “Katherine Marsh, the pseudonym of a journalist who until recently was reporting for the Guardian from Syria, interviewed Amina by email in May after being put in touch with her by a trusted Syrian contact who also believed the blogger to be real. Marsh said that many steps had been taken to try to verify Amina’s identity, including repeated requests to meet, at some personal risk to the journalist, and talk on Skype.”
Credit for discovering MacMaster’s deception goes both to citizen and broadcast media. The Washington Post had been pursuing MacMaster at the same time Electronic Intifiada and Liz Henry did, and their attempts to interview him generated some of the pressure that may have led him to end his hoax. Carvin works for NPR, focused on social media, and the hard work he and colleagues did in reporting the story speaks to the sort of old/new media cooperation that’s going to be critical to reporting in a participatory media environment. But the sheer effort necessary to debunk the story is going to serve as a caution to all news outlets that seek to use citizen voices to tell stories in the future.
That’s a serious problem. If you’re a whistleblower exposing corporate or government wrongdoing, or an activist in a developing nation, you may need to use a persistent pseudonym to protect your identity. More than one of Global Voices’s authors, over the years, has written using pseudonyms. In general, we’ve been able to meet these people in person and verify their identities and reasons to remain pseudonymous. In a few cases, we’ve featured the writing of people we were not initially able verify, like Sleepless in Sudan, who wrote as an aid worker in Darfur. (I helped her set up mechanisms to post to her blog without revealing her identity or aid organization affiliation to the Sudanese government, and Nick Kristof eventually verified her identity when he visited her in Sudan.)
MacMaster has just made it harder for people who need to write under assumed identities to do so and have their perspectives taken seriously. Zeynep Tufekci, writing about Amina, suggests that the story gives support to Facebook’s (inconsistent) insistence on a real-name identity. She suggests we consider the situation as “a reverse tragedy of the commons” – what’s good for the group (real identity) is bad for a small set of individuals (activists who need to protect their identity.)
In his interview with BBC Scotland today, MacMaster explains that “I really felt a number of years ago, in discussions on Middle East issues in the US, often when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to someone with my name was: ‘Why are you anti-American? Why are you anti-Jewish?’ So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue.” He explains that he wanted people to listen to the perspectives Amina was offering “without paying attention to ‘the man behind the curtain’.” Thanks to his actions – whether they were stupid, naïve or malicious – people are going to be looking closely for the man behind the curtain in citizen media for a long time to come.
More links as they come in:
More from The Guardian on the difficulty of verifying blog sources, and their response to being alerted to the Amina deception.
The correction on this Guardian piece gives a sense for just how shaken that paper is by the situation – they’d run a picture of MacMaster on an earlier edition of the story, and have now replaced it with a graphic from Amina’s blog because they couldn’t verify that the photo actually was of MacMaster…
Elizabeth Flock and Melissa Bell interview MacMaster for the Washington Post’s blogpost. He’s more contrite in this interview than in his BBC Scotland interview. The Post interviewed his wife as well, who was evidently unaware of the deception until this weekend – they’re posting that piece shortly.
MacMaster’s first interview appears to have been with Turkish paper Al Hurriyet (in Turkish)
Skype video interview with MacMaster on Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2011/jun/13/syrian-lesbian-blogger-hoaxer-video
Response to MacMaster on KABOBfest by Ali Abbas and Assia Boundaoui, who are “New York based writers and freelance-journalists that submitted a blood test and birth certificate to affirm that the above thoughts are their own analysis based on a lifetime of Arab and or queer and or American and or woman identification.”