Syrian lesbian blog is a hoax: So who’s to blame?

Fake photograph of fictional Syrian blogger Amina Arraf

It took months for the world to pick up on the plight of Amina Arraf, a lesbian blogger from Damascus who challenged the authorities — and her readers — to understand the troubles of Syria’s population. Her end, however, was decidedly swift.

After a series questions and investigations into her identity, it rapidly emerged that the whole thing was a hoax. In a posting published a short while ago, “Amina” was revealed to be a fictional character — the work of a Scottish educator an American grad student based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Tom MacMaster, who claimed that he had created the character in order to publicize the situation in Syria:

I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative vo?ce may have been fictional, the facts on th?s blog are true and not m?sleading 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.

I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in th?s year of revolutions. The events there are be?ng shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.

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 truth is, however, that his confession came only after the net had already closed in, thanks to a series of links back to MacMaster and his wife, American campaigner Britta Froelicher. There had already been a number of skeptics by the time the first shoe really dropped, when the blog carried news of Arraf’s disappearance and arrest. The sudden flurry of media activity that followed led to the revelation that the photo of “Amina” was actually Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London. Alarm bells started ringing, though obviously there were plenty of reasons why Arraf might use a fake photograph (as well as, possibly, an obscured identity, though she claimed at times it was her real name).

But after a collective effort from a number of individuals, notably NPR’s Andy Carvin, San Francisco developer Liz Henry and Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, the truth came out. It also emerged that MacMaster and his wife were a pair of seasoned pro-Palestinian campaigners based largely in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The reaction so far has been a mixture of relief — that Amina was not really imprisoned after all — and anger; anger not only at being duped, but also because the hoax potentially endangers the lives and stories of real Syrians trying to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Jillian York, for example, who has written eloquently about her feelings on the situation, says she is ”furious”.

So what does this hoax tell us? What will it mean?

There will likely be some social and political repercussions. Actual members of Syria’s gay communities were concerned that they would be targeted by the authorities since the blog (and therefore their repressive tactics) had become so widely discussed. That doesn’t sit well with MacMaster’s statement that he does not believe he’s harmed anyone. At the same time, the political stance of both MacMaster and Froelicher will inevitably allow some political sites to paint the whole enterprise (and by association, concern for Syrians) as some anti-Israeli conspiracy.

And then, of course, there will be the inevitable hand-wringing. How did readers get fooled so easily? Why did nobody find this out before? How did news organizations get sucked in?

It’s likely that some will blame this on the mainstream media’s failure to out Arraf. Numerous outlets covered her story: CNN quoted her in an article and the Guardian also ran an interview with her. How could they not know? Was there a failure of process?

There have been plenty of high-profile failures in the news business over the years, from the Hitler Diaries to the Balloon Boy hoax. News organizations are looking for credible, compelling stories and Arraf’s was too interesting to ignore. The blog had been online for some years, telling a consistent story. Of course, confirming her identity was hard, but she conducted long conversations with people over IM and Skype and had credible reasons for staying a little under the radar (NPR’s Carvin asked the Guardian about their interview and it turned out it did not happen in person). This was a failure, obviously, since the hoax wasn’t spotted — but right now, it’s not clear how serious that failure was.

At the same time, some will likely suggest that it’s the online world’s fault for allowing her story to spread so far and so fast. Without the instant pass-it-along-and-don’t-check-the-facts nature of a service like Twitter, without the anyone-can-do-it nature of blogging, would we even be in this situation? Despite the fact that Twitter, blogging and the rest helped solve this puzzle, there’s not much to crow about. The online world has more than its share of hoaxes, and the fake blogger routine has been around for a long time.

I remember writing a story more than 10 years ago about a blogger called Kaycee Nicole, who purported to be an American teenager documenting her fight against leukaemia. She gained a significant following in the run-up to her death in 2001 — at which point, after some skeptics decided to investigate, it turned out to be a hoax. The culprit, a Debbie Swenson, had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the fantasy going: online chats, photos, phone calls and so on. She received lots of good will and plenty of gifts from well-wishers — so much so, that the FBI ended up looking into the case over fraud allegations. Online hoaxes of this sort have been going on for years and will continue as long as people are trying to deceive the audience.

The truth is, whether it’s a fictional character like Amina Arraf or faked material like Hitler’s diaries or simply a sad fantasy like Kaycee Nicole, moments like this will always exist as long as there are rules for somebody to work around.

Attention is an incredible, addictive thing, and verification can sometimes be difficult. As long as some people want to deliberately deceive you, for whatever reason, and there are people who want to believe, then hoaxes will be hard to eradicate.