A 40-year-old American man living in Scotland said Monday he’s sorry for posing as a Syrian lesbian blogger who offered vivid accounts of life amid revolt and repression in Damascus, a still-unraveling hoax that has exposed the difficulty of sifting truth from fiction online.
Tom MacMaster said he created the fictional persona of Amina Arraf and the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog to draw attention to conditions in a Middle East convulsed by change.
Readers of this blog will already know that it wasn’t long ago I wrote a piece right her at PTL entitled A Vivid Picture Of What “Arab Spring” Means that was inspired by this very “woman’s” blog.
The lesson for me to take away from this deception by Mr. MacMaster is one I would have told you I already knew, had you asked me in the abstract, prior to (or even after) writing my post based on “Gay Girl in Damascus,” namely: anyone – including me – can get burned by false information on the Internet, so always check your sources and verify authenticity before you rebroadcast information or especially before you rely on it for important actions or conclusions.
I could say, truthfully, that I DO follow such advice/rules when it matters, but what’s clear from this revelation is that I obviously don’t follow it 100% of the time. At least once, as evidenced by these events, I failed to do so. That’s a big piece of the take-away for me.
Part of the reason I did not fully fact-check or vet this source has to do with the fact that I was not using it as confirmation that a specific event had, with certainty, taken place in just the way I was claiming it had. This story was an anecdote, not a data point, and my post was not “reporting” in the traditional sense of the word. “Amina’s” story on the “Gay Girl” blog was believed by many people, including me, because it was a personal retelling of a private event that was recorded nowhere else, and witnessed by no one else except the people involved (the girl, her father, and the security forces involved in the story).
In truth, of course, I am also not in any formal sense a reporter, either, but I do take journalist-like pains to not post information here at PTL which is inaccurate. Clearly, I failed this time. I wish I could remember how I was first alerted to the “Gay Girl” blog, because I’d like to know if it was from just some person on Twitter, or from a more “formal” source – perhaps a news outlet. Unfortunately, my memory of how I came to read that page is gone: I cannot remember who linked me to it.
Nevertheless, when I first read it, it inspired me – obviously, at least enough to write the post. As I said then, I didn’t think it had any particular “expiration date” as a story (as most news usually does), because it was a picture of a broader set of cultural and political shifts currently still underway, collectively known as the “Arab spring.” That phenomenon is quite real…only this view of it was not. In my post, I talked about how “Amina’s” voice “presents perhaps the clearest first-person narrative (though this was not the intent of the author, I suspect) of the cultural and political forces at work in the current ‘Arab spring’.” At the time – to me – it did.
In retrospect, and in light of the fact that all of the people in “Amina’s” story are fictional creations, it’s not surprising that I didn’t think to exercise my usual “BS meter” on the story. I’m not saying failing to exercise it is excusable, I’m merely admitting that in this case I was easily gulled whereas, in another set of circumstances, I wouldn’t have been. I also think spending a bit of time figuring out why that is the case in this particular instance can be helpful to my understanding of where my own blind spots are. So: why did I not think to question the veracity of this story? Partly, as I’ve already said, because it wasn’t a “newsworthy” story, it was a personal account of one tiny “snapshot” of what I believe is occurring across much of the MENA region currently (ever since the uprising in Tunisia).
But that explanation – that I wasn’t reporting news, but rather anecdote – only goes so far. I can assure you I would not have related nor linked to something I knew to be false, even if it was only an anecdotal story. The other – perhaps the main – reason my suspicions were not aroused is because the story fit in with the picture I already had in my mind about the “Arab Spring” – what it really was, underneath everything, and what it could be, at its best. Namely, I pictured – and still picture, truthfully – the Arab Spring as a long-overdue awakening by a race of people who stretch farther back into history than many do, who’ve given the world some of its great insights and discoveries, but who have been – of late – kept from participating fully in the fruits of modernity by a repressive interpretation of their primary religion, and by the political power wielded by those in power who adhere to that repressive interpretation. My sense of a great deal of the Arab Spring uprisings is that a large bulk of the actual people of Arab countries are more ready for modernity and less in thrall to the frankly Luddite and revanchist version of Islam that holds sway in many of the Arab centers of power. That’s why it’s called a “spring” (not just the happy occurrence of the calendar dates): because it represents a spontaneous cultural awakening by people who have in the main outgrown the old ways which still endure among their rulers. And “Amina’s” story fit perfectly into that idea I already had in mind.
In short, I heard what I wanted to hear.
It hasn’t escaped my notice that not only did the story that was told by “Amina” fit what I expected to hear – perhaps even wanted to hear – but that the man behind the blog is a Scottish grad student in Edinburgh. In other words, he’s much like me: straight, Anglo, and with a distinctly western sensibility about everything from religion (both “ours” and Islam) to cultural issues like LGBT rights, to what justice means. I spent the first few paragraphs of my post on “Amina’s” story explaining that often, we here in the west don’t have the cultural experience to understand the news out of places like the MENA region in the context in which they happen. The value system is similar in many ways, but different in crucial other ways which often skew our perception of why some set of events may have happened, or what they mean.
Of all the bits of that not-very-stellar post of mine, I’m most proud of those paragraphs, because they remain as true as when I wrote them. We in the west really DO often lack the cultural experience to understand what is happening fully in a place as foreign to us as Arab countries. I only wish I’d have re-read my own words in those opening paragraphs and reflected upon all of their meaning a bit longer before waxing rhapsodic about how “universal” Amina’s story seemed to me. In retrospect, that’s the regrettable – but somewhat understandable – part of what I thought (and wrote): of course Amina’s story sounded easily-relatable to me: because it wasn’t what an actual gay woman living in Syria (even one educated in the west, as “Amina’s” bio said she was) would have written. At the very least, it was not the way in which she would have written about such events, had she been real. “Amina’s” words merely sounded “real” to me because they were written by someone very similar to me, with similar sensibilities, who was trying to deceive readers into thinking he was what he claimed to be, namely: something very different from both of us.
That’s my key takeaway: even though I probably wouldn’t have fallen for this if the post in question had been news instead of personal anecdote, my failure to exercise discretion in this case reminds me that it’s when I find myself nodding along in agreement that I should be most skeptical of all, remember most strongly to check my assumptions and others’ stories. It’s easy (for me) to be “on guard” when reading pieces written by GOP operatives: I fully expect them to lie, distort and otherwise fabricate reality to suit their own ideological ends. I know already that Republicans aren’t the only ones who do so; I’ve seen plenty of examples in my time of similar bending of the truth in service of a point or an ideology from liberals over the years. So even though the man behind “Amina” didn’t appear to be pushing a particular course of action or agenda, that fact coupled with the realization that “Amina’s” words resonated so deeply with me, shouldn’t have been enough to cause me to let my guard down.