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Why were we fooled by the fake Syria blog?

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Robin Lustig | 11:43 UK time, Monday, 13 June 2011

Amid all the violence in Syria - well over 1,000 people feared killed, according to human rights groups, and more than 10,000 people arrested - why is so much attention being paid to a fake blog which purported to be the work of a "Gay Girl in Damascus"?

First, because for us journalists, hoaxes that we fall for are a source of deep embarrassment and a reason for some serious soul-searching.

Second, because many thousands of people wanted to believe in "Amina", the fake blogger, and it's worth asking why.

Third, because it was a real mystery, and now it's been solved - and there is a perennial fascination with mysteries.

Here are some of my thoughts. (And yes, I apologise for having been taken in by the hoax, and I apologise for having linked to the "Gay Girl" website from this blog and from Facebook and Twitter.)

There's nothing new, alas, about journalists falling for hoaxes. Forty years ago, Clifford Irving fooled everyone with a fake autobiography of the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. In the 1980s, fake Hitler diaries were published - again, many journalists were left with egg on their faces.

What's new about the world of social media is the speed with which information can be disseminated, questioned, and, where necessary, debunked. When "Amina" was reported arrested last week, it was only hours before questions were being asked about whether she really existed. (Many people worked on establishing the truth, but the real detective work was done principally by Andy Carvin of the US public radio network NPR, and Ali Abunimah of the website Electronic Intifada.)

Why did journalists - why did I - believe Amina was genuine? First, she wrote in what seemed to be an authentic voice. Second, she was taken seriously by people who were in a good position to judge her authenticity. Third, she was an identifiable individual who seemed to be living in the midst of one of the major international stories of our time.

Successful hoaxers, like successful confidence tricksters, tell us what we want to hear. The man who created the Gay Girl blog, a 40-year-old American Middle East activist called Tom MacMaster, insists that he did not intend to deceive - but he did, knowingly or unknowingly, feed what may well have been a journalistic longing for an authentic social media hero of the Arab Spring.

One of the reasons why so many people have been caught up in the story of the Arab uprisings may be that we like to read stories in which ordinary people, acting together, can produce real change. And if we can put a face, and a voice, to someone who symbolises that change, so much the better.

"Amina" was brave, and beautiful, and passionate. Mr MacMaster may well have missed his true calling as a writer of pulp fiction. He now says he may write a novel based on the Gay Girl blog. When I linked to his (fake) story of how Amina's father supposedly faced down thuggish Syrian security men who had come to arrest his daughter, I called it "a remarkable human tale", because that is what it seemed to be.

Should I have been more sceptical? Yes. Will I be more sceptical in future? Yes again. But there are many brave people out there, and some of them are prolific bloggers and Tweeters. We should not ignore the real ones because we were fooled by a fake one.


  • Comment number 1.

    "she was an identifiable individual" - but not identified.
    Maybe the medium has induced the problem - for example 140 characters is not enough to include the rider that sources not verified and a "retweet" is very easy to do and the action implies endorsement.
    Blogs are different though - and have the space to include references, provisos and analysis. Hopefully people will still read beyond 140 characters.

  • Comment number 2.

    Where is my comment, which seems to have disappeared into thin air - neither accepted not rejected, just gone!
    I feel bad about this because it will be hard for me to recapture my thoughts, though I will try.
    1. All journalistic pieces should be vetted; that is simply good journalism.
    2. It is not good journalism to be first, but to be accurate.
    3. The fact that other journalists have been fooled is really not an excuse, though it may make you feel better.
    4. Who is this Tom MacMaster? Apparently he came out of GA where he & his wife (whom he met through online dating) owned their own hime. He had a scholarship to this Scottish University to study Austro-Goths, but changed his major to Middle Eastern studies. His wife also majored in some similar subject. Wife and husband travelled to Jordan, and other middle eastern countries allegedly to improve their speaking of middle eastern languages.
    So as I said in the previous piece: Now is the time to drop the embarrassment and start asking relevant questions, such as who financed (is financing) this guy, and perhaps his wife? Something fishy about a 40-year-old student working on his PHD while traveling around the Middle East, don't you think. Follow the money.
    Who paid Tom MacMaster, and possibly his wife? Follow the money.

  • Comment number 3.

    It occurs to me that this "Amina" story may been a distraction. The US is good at distractions. US is stepping up pressure on Russia's Black Sea fleet. The US's provocation is using backdrop of Syria. Russia is blocking US attempts to present a case for Libya-style intervention in Syria. Moscow understands that a major reason for the US to push for regime change in Syria is to get the Russian naval base in that country out of that country.

  • Comment number 4.

    The Syrian base is only hold Russia has in the Mediterranean. The Black Sea Fleet counts on the Syrian base for Mediterranean presence. Establishment of US military bases in Romania + sudden appearance of US warship in the Black Sea region, the arc of preparation is nearing completion.
    In order for peace process (on Israeli terms) US & Israel must deal with Syria.
    Now by sending the warship to the Black Sea, US has signaled that it will make Russia pay a price for its desire to be Mediterranean & Middle Eastern power.
    Provocation: appearance of US guided missile cruiser in the Black Sea for naval exercises with Ukraine.
    US claims that this is a routine naval exercise. On the other hand, Moscow asks: "If this is an ordinary visit, then it is unclear why a warship with this type of armament was chosen to move to this quite sensitive region."
    Good question.

  • Comment number 5.

    From the first, I have been sceptical about the Internet because it was obviously not controlled by anyone and vetting information would depend on your personal trust of the blogger and contents of the blog. There is as a result a great deal of fraudulent schemes being peddled by unscrupulous people on the Internet. I was also sceptical about social media when it made its appearence a few years ago for this same reason. This case of the Gay Girl in Damascus fraud should be a lesson for the many unwary participants who wanted to believe in Amina and her lurid tales of Syrian repression. Perhaps to put a positive spin on this case, we should be delighted and grateful that social media played such a big role in the Egyptian peaceful revolution without mishap.

  • Comment number 6.

    The grave offenses against our trust. Human beings do these things...some deceive and some believe. Now take the bankers and politicians...all have been lying since before '08 about the financial crisis and impacts everyone much more than a lesbian in Syria. But we search our souls and whine at these personal deceptions while the important things around us remain unaddressed.

  • Comment number 7.

    Moderator/ censor- please dump earlier 'philocleanthes' comment- 'fired off' after touching some key or other.


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