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The revelation that a blog called “Gay Girl in Damascus” is actually written by an American man living in Scotland calls into question the reliability of online reporting from complicated parts of the world. We explore how new media are contributing to our understanding of the rapidly-unfolding events in Syria and the rest of the Arab world.
- David Kenner Writer, Foreign Policy
- Andy Carvin Senior Strategist, Social Media Desk, NPR
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was an online into the revolt taking place in Syria. A website that allowed us to witness political turmoil through the eyes of a Syrian-American lesbian woman in Damascus who was simultaneously struggling with her identity and her religion, and ultimately arrested by the ruling regime for speaking out. Except there was one problem.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt turns out Amina, the gay girl in Damascus, was actually a straight American man pursuing a graduate degree in Scotland. The blog's author, Tom McAllister (sic), says that Amina may have been a fabrication, but that the issues he explored on the site are, in fact, very real. Here's Tom McAllister.
MR. TOM MACMASTERI regret that, you know, quite a number of people are seeing my hoax as distracting from real news, real stories about Syria, and real concerns of real actual on the ground bloggers, where people will doubt their veracity. And the fact that, you know, I think it's only a matter of time before somebody in the Syrian regime says, see, all our opposition is fake, it's not real.
NNAMDITom McAllister gave a Skype interview to the Guardian newspaper earlier this week. All of this calls into question the reliability of the new media so many people have grown to rely on for information about complicated global events like the ones rapidly unfolding in Syria. Joining us by telephone is David Kenner. He writes for Foreign Policy magazine. You can find a link to his piece, "A Straight Guy in Scotland" on our website. David Kenner, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID KENNERThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by telephone is Andy Carvin. He's a senior strategist on the social media desk at NPR. Andy, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANDY CARVINThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIDavid, I'll start with you. Just a few weeks ago, American news outlets were closely following a story about how Amina Araf, the author behind "The Gay Girl in Damascus" blog had gone missing. It was a story about the lengths that Syrian president Bashar al Assad was going to, to crack down on dissent. But this past week, it was revealed that Amina was a fabrication, and that she's actually an American living in Scotland who was blogging from outside the country.
NNAMDIYou wrote for Foreign Policy that this blog's audience missed a lot of obvious details that called its reliability into question. How so? What details?
KENNERAbsolutely. Well, I mean, it's one of those things when I was going over it yesterday, it was just so blatantly obvious that this could never be a true story. In one post, she talks about how she was on the list to marry Bashar al Assad when he was searching for a wife. I mean, it's simply incomprehensible that a woman would -- from so prominent a family would speak out in such terms against the regime endangering both her life and her family's life.
KENNERThe story was also just far too convenient as Andy Carvin pointed out so presciently when he exposed this. It was too good to be true, and the western media really should be blamed for not checking this earlier and simply going along with the hoax.
NNAMDIAndy, as David just said, it's my understanding that you were getting tips that the "Gay Girl in Damascus" was a hoax. Where did those initial suspicions come from?
CARVINThey actually came from Syria. I have several contacts there, including a couple that are members of the Syrian gay and lesbian community. They had among themselves privately grumbled about the blog and had some suspicions but had never gone public with it really. But when it was reported last Monday, a week ago, that she had been kidnapped, they started contacting me and saying, I really think this is a hoax.
CARVINYou need to look into this. I've asked everyone I know, and there's no one here who seems to have met her in person. And so when I started asking people publically, have you met her in person, I couldn't find anyone who had. And then when I asked news organizations if they had interviewed her in person or over the phone, none of them had either. All of their communications had been done purely through text.
NNAMDIHow did you ultimately ferret out that she was a fake?
CARVINWell, I think it was -- it unraveled fairly quickly in terms of figuring out it was a fake. For example, someone discovered soon after I started poking around that the photos that he had -- or she had on her personal Facebook page, were actually of a Croatian woman in London. Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of photos going back several years.
CARVINAnd people started expressing their suspicions then. Other people started admitting they had never met her in person. Meanwhile, several bloggers such as Liz Henry and the folks behind Electronic Intifada started investigating it. So once it started to unravel, everyone wanted to dig into it. And so ultimately the way he was caught was because on an e-mail list he participated in as this character several years ago, he had told someone his postal address because the other person wanted to send him a wedding gift.
CARVINYes. Beforehand -- before she was gay she wasn't gay apparently. And so through that address, Electronic Intifada and the Washington Post were able to track down the names of these -- of Tom MacMaster and his wife, and then we were able to get a hold of the wife and basically force her to say that she was going to -- they were going to put something on the blog momentarily to clarify the situation. And at that point the jig was up.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. What are your views about what took place here. David, to what extent do you think the willingness of the audience to believe the blog contributed to this scandal that the author was essentially writing things about Syria that a lot of people in a western audience wanted to believe about Syria anyway.
KENNERAbsolutely. I think that's part of it. It was simply a great story. It was this bi-national woman, she was Syrian-American, she was gay, she was very pretty according -- by the pictures that she posted. And she hated the Assad regime, which, I mean, it's absolutely true that's it a very brutal regime. And she had these very eloquent pleas for democracy and the new better Syria that would come after Assad.
KENNERThat is something that we all very much want to hear. And there was very little stomach I think in the media before it became obvious that this was unraveling, to question such a sympathetic story. And also, after she got arrested, no -- I mean, it was very -- it was dangerous and very risky to sort of call into question the identity of someone who very well might have been in a Syrian jail.
NNAMDIAndy Carvin, is this a particular weakness of new media, or is this something that we see in how the so-called mainstream media report on global events as well?
CARVINI think it's a combination of factors. Clearly a number of news organizations were somewhat complacent in the way they handled talking to her. But at the same time, you have to acknowledge that this person was claiming to be in Damascus, and there are very few news organizations from the west that have people there that they can rely upon directly. And so sometimes you have the take the benefit of the doubt.
CARVINYou still try to do your due diligence, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're gonna be able to meet to this people or talk to them via Skype, because that could get them killed quite frankly. And so part of it was just certainly that it was taking place in Syria. It made it harder for journalists to do their job. But because this person had developed their persona online, they were able to get people to vouch for her.
CARVINAnd so over a period of five or six years she had friends on listservs and bulletin boards that would talk about her in other contexts. She would expand her Facebook fans. Then she would eventually create this blog and get a number of fans from that. And so we have to live with the fact that pseudonimity and anonymity is a part of the Internet and always will be.
CARVINAnd if this had been a real case, I think most of us would probably have been happy that she was able to use fake names and fake photos in order to prevent her from getting killed. But now that we know it's a hoax, suddenly those seem to be liabilities.
NNAMDIDavid Kenner, for the most part, Syria has banned western journalists from entering the country. What concerns do you have about how American media are getting around those restrictions to report on events on the ground, whether it's the YouTube videos that are trickling out, or the streams of tweets about the protests?
KENNERWell, I mean, one thing that's so interesting about this "Girl in Damascus" story is it really shows the two-edged sword of the media's coverage of Syria. On the one hand, there's the Internet was used for this horrible hoax that really did discredit some of the media blogosphere in Syria. But on the other hand, I mean, the Internet's been this amazing resource for getting news of Syria through YouTube videos, through very brave activists in Syria who really do risk their lives to document the regime crackdown, and then to smuggle out the videos.
KENNERYou know, in 1982, the former president of Syria, Hafez al Assad, killed about 20,000 people in the city of Hama, and we didn't know the extent of that massacre for years later. Bashar al Assad has now killed, I mean, you know, over 1,000 Syrians, and thankfully there's an international outcry over this. So, I mean, I don't want the story of the "Gay Girl in Damascus" to distract from the fact that overall this Internet revolution has been positive for coverage of Syria.
NNAMDIWell, Syrian president Bashar al Assad has repeatedly insisted that this is a revolt that's being manipulated by people outside of his country. What does the "Gay Girl in Damascus" story -- how does that impact his argument inside Syria?
KENNERWell, it's been used for -- to great effect by him. Yesterday, you know, as soon as this was out, the official Syrian news agency, the Syrian Arab news agency published an article on Tom MacMaster explaining this had been a fraud, and saying it was part of a plot to make fabrications and lies against Syria in the international press. So, I mean, one of the most horrible things about this hoax is that it plays right into the Assad's regime's propaganda.
NNAMDIAnd Andy, have we learned anything about -- from this incident about the pitfalls of relying on new media for information about these kinds of stories that we didn't know before?
CARVINWell, I think it's a good reminder that the Internet's currency is basically trust and generosity, you know. It's often very difficult to verify who a person is, and so communities form because there is a network of trust between people. And that's always going to be one of the greatest strengths of the Internet. But if someone comes in and wants to take advantage of that situation, it could make some of us seem gullible, but I think it's a very human response to want to believe that the person that you've been corresponding with this entire time is real. In this particular case, they weren't.
NNAMDIAndy Carvin is a senior strategist on the social media desk at NPR. Andy, thank you joining us.
CARVINThanks for having me.
NNAMDIDavid Kenner writes for Foreign Policy magazine. You can find a link to his piece, "A Straight Guy in Scotland," on our website, kojoshow.org. David, thank you for joining us.
KENNERIt was a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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