What we can learn from the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax
Turns out that young, lesbian blogger in Syria was actually a middle-aged, Georgia-born, married white man, studying in Scotland. Tom MacMaster was on vacation in Turkey this weekend when he confessed to posing as Amina Arraf for five years on the Internet, and for five months on damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com.
The story began to unravel when the invented blogger’s “cousin” posted that Amina had been abducted by security forces. Several organizations snapped into action–The State Department launched an investigation, Avaaz started a letter writing campaign demanding her release, and major newspapers published word of her arrest. But all the attention also brought scrutiny and the pictures of Amina on her site were quickly found to be stolen photos from a London woman’s Facebook page. As The Washington Post points out, sources in Syria contacted NPR’s Andy Carvin, who has been one of the strongest social media forces during this Arab Spring. Carvin asked his nearly-50,000 followers if anyone had actually met Amina. Not a single person had. The Post chronicles the rest of the story–how a man looking to send Amina Christmas cards was given a Georgia address which eventually led to MacMaster. When confronted by what he’d done, MacMaster denied his involvement over and over, until the overwhelming evidence forced a confession.
His first “apology,” was upsetting:
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…
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.
The hubris of this makes it almost laughable. Not only does he defend lying to people and organizations that wanted nothing more than to help a woman in trouble, but he–a white married man–had the gall to allude to the “pervasiveness” of “liberal Orientalism” while pretending to be a lesbian woman from Syria.
No doubt his fraud will be used to dredge up the media’s favorite topic of whether or not blogs are reliable, whether or not Twitter is reliable, whether or not you can trust journalists (people are dropping the names Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass online). But this isn’t a journalistic scandal: Tom MacMaster has very little in common with the reporters who have betrayed the public trust in the past by faking stories across a variety of topics over many years. They had no ideological premise (unless you count self-aggrandizement). MacMaster has much more in common with the misguided activists who have fooled the public with tales of victimization in order to advance an agenda.
In the early 90s, a student spray-painted “Dead chinks, good chinks” and “Death to Chinks Memorial” on an arch commemorating the Boxer Rebellion at Oberlin College. Students and professors alike were outraged–the tension on campus grew palpable as racist words were found spray-painted on students’ doors. But then the Oberlin Review received an anonymous letter from an Asian-American student claiming responsibility. The letter said the arch “glorified white accomplishment” and that the graffiti was meant to shine a light on the “racial politics on campus.” The student had faked these incidents in order to expose a narrative she believed to be true. A similar stunt was staged at Princeton University by a young conservative student who said he’d been threatened and beaten because of his politics, when in fact he had caused the injuries to himself and had sent the threatening letters to several conservatives on campus.
What these cases have in common with the more recent examples of MacMaster and Becca Beushausen is that every single one of the perpetrators thought faking reports about a perceived truth was a valid form of advocacy. Well, it’s not. As Einstein said, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” We don’t get to make up truths just because we have a gut feeling the sentiments behind them exist. It not only undercuts reporters of real crimes and real life-changing experiences, it not only toys with people’s emotions, but it also can have the opposite-than-intended effect. The fact that a gay woman in Syria could blog for months on end without retribution may be too rosy a picture.
Journalism doesn’t need another black eye. This isn’t a case of a reporter who entered into a social contract and betrayed the trust of her colleagues and readers–it was fraud committed in the name of social justice (which in no way justifies it). Yes, major outlets reported on her disappearance but it was ultimately the media in the form of Twitter, blogs and newspapers that uncovered the fraud and set the record straight. We can only hope that honest people reporting from places like Syria with these technological tools won’t be ignored because of lies like this.
Tom MacMaster may now understand the damage he’s done. In a follow up to his original apology, he seems to have been stripped of his arrogance:
Words alone do not suffice to express how badly I feel about all this. I betrayed the trust of a great many people, the friendship that was honestly and openly offered to me, and played with the emotions of others unfairly. I have distracted the world’s attention from important issues of real people in real places. I have potentially compromised the safety of real people. I have helped lend credence to the lies of the regimes. I am sorry.
Let’s hope this is a lesson for the next person who thinks faking a story is a valid way to advance an agenda.