Sunday, June 12, 2011

Today's fake: 'Gay Girl in Damascus' actually a straight American man

This won't be news to anybody -- it's been the focus of a fairly intense internet flap for several days -- and I'm just documenting it here in the interest of logging yet another hoax and making a comment or two. Briefly:
  1. A blog entitled "Gay Girl in Damascus" attracted attention for some time ("for years," says the Washington Post) [permalink].
  2. Several days ago, the pseudononymous author of the blog, one "Amina," was said to have been detained by security forces in Syria, where of course a rebellion is raging.
  3. In attempting to verify the alleged arrest and support its victim, some bloggers began to have what Liz Henry* called "painful doubts" about the real existence of "Amina."
  4. Investigation by Henry and by Ali Abunimah of the blog "The Electronic Intifada," as well as by mainstream reporters, revealed a number a clues suggesting that "Amina" was actually an American named Tom MacMaster.
  5. Today MacMaster has admitted being the author of "Gay Girl in Damascus".
The Washington Post has the whole story [permalink] and a photo of the bearish MacMaster. Meanwhile, Henry has suggested that another blogger, Paula Brooks, who was interviewed by journalists regarding the case may also be a fake persona, perhaps concocted by the same man.

What the hell, everyone says.

First, everyone should read Henry's initial "painful doubts" post, because she raises several interesting issues about online identity and the degree to which what she calls fictional blogging can be a valid form in some cases. And then you should read a 2008 post of hers in which she uncovers an entire blog in which the blogger and most of the commenters are nothing but sockpuppets. That post is especially valuable if: 1) you want insight into how an online citizen journalist goes about investigating online identity, and 2) you want to understand why it matters.

Now that the facts are coming out, it's hard not to see l'affaire Amina as being very much like the J.T. LeRoy hoax, featuring the same attributes of gender crossing, impersonation of a genderqueer person, appropriation of an oppressed minority identity by someone more privileged, and readers' similar emotional feelings of investment and betrayal. (I've blogged several times about the JT LeRoy hoax and about fakes in general -- see below.)

To repeat what I've said before: words matter. Stories matter. I'm sure this MacMaster fellow is going to say he did this to draw attention to the plight of women and homosexuals in the Middle East, or for some other apparently good reason. But when you pretend to be one of an oppressed minority and make people feel sympathy for you, when the truth comes out those people are going to feel you've manipulated them, no matter how noble your motives were. And they're going to be angry.

Update: A comment from a real LGBT blogger in Syria:
To Mr. MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. 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. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina's arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really... Shame on you!!!

On JT LeRoy:
People Continue To Take 'JT LeRoy' Writer Seriously
The Fake Patrol
Suckers Line Up to claim they were duped by LeRoy hoax
'Other Writers Latched Onto JT as Career Move'
Other hoaxes and fakes:
Is there a 'larger, better truth' than just the facts?
"Really though, at this point, who's to say what's real anymore?"
Author made up quotes, degree, many other false claims
Crazy people make up the best stories
GOP volunteer charged with making false report
Hoaxers as superheroes
* Disclosure: Liz Henry is a friend of mine.

No comments: