The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media

I first heard about the abduction of the ‘gay’ Syrian blogger through the Facebook feeds of friends following events in the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, closely. A number pointed to this Al Jazeera article, but really, this was picked up and reported on almost all the major wire news services. The disclaimer on the top of the Al Jazeera article didn’t exist at the time of its first publication, and gives an idea of why this story is so tragic.

Known only as Amina Abdallah Araf, the story was this person was abducted in Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Monday.  The first news of her ‘abduction’ came from a guest post on her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus. This blog, as well as Amina’s Facebook page, were apparently cornerstones of the activist movement in Syria. Turns out, however, no one had really met Amina. As Al Jazeera now notes,

 A number of questions have been raised about Arraf’s identity, which the New York Times summarizes on its Lede blog. One of her alleged photos is actually a photo of a woman named Jelena Lecic, who lives in London and says she has never met anyone named Amina Arraf. And a 2007 post on Arraf’s old blog suggests that at least some of her writings are fictional. No one has come forward who has actually met Arraf in person; all of her friends and contacts seem to have conducted purely online relationships.

It got worse. As The Lede notes,

Andy Carvin, an NPR journalist and expert at debunking Internet rumors, pointed out that none of the reports of the arrest of Amina Abdallah Arraf appeared to have been written by journalists who had previously met or interviewed her. 

Some of my Facebook friends and their friends refused to believe that Amina wasn’t a person, and when it became apparent that her identity was a mask, then refused to believe that she or the person(s) behind the blog could have deliberately misled people, pointing also to the fact that the blog was rather well tuned to the politics of Syria which for an outsider would be extremely difficult to parse. But the evidence kept stacking up.

Later in the week, the BBC broadcast a damning interview with Jelena Lecic of London, who identity and photos were actually those that Amina had portrayed as her own. It is unfair to blame Facebook based on what she says in the interview, but she does clearly note that the photos were taken off her Facebook profile in spite of her privacy settings, which raises larger questions about identity theft and management in our age of online social networking. Mahmoud Hamad, a Syrian rights activist on the programme places the blame on lazy journalism, but this is rich. Amina had deliberately taken on the identity of another person, and given her blog’s profile and the profile of her writing, gave no reason at all to disbelieve that she was not who she said she was. In any case, save for the use of a platform like www.tineye.com, there is also no way for journalists to easily trace back the origins of a photo. Plus, it is unclear if Tin Eye actually has access to and indexes photos in the walled gardens of online social networks.

The reason for taking on an assumed identity are well known. No one is contesting this, or why this can’t continue to be the case for the most vociferous critics of the Syrian regime, in order to protect their lives. That said, there is an obvious benefit of making this known from the get go, and letting readers judge one’s output based on content, and not necessarily name. On Groundviews for example, a site I curate, there are dozens, nay hundreds of online commentators and contributors who are pseudonymous. In sticking to their pseudonym over time, have rich conversations with others because it becomes for most part indistinguishable from an identity using a real name. Why wasn’t Amina upfront?

The story then gets even more farcical. This site, which claims to have set up Amina’s blog for her, now claims it was “a 35 year-old lesbian living in Edinburgh, Scotland” behind it. No evidence is given, no names are shared. Ironically, the site still has stories of Amina’s abduction with Jelena’s photos. No clarifications at all.

“Posting it again. Because it’s worth posting again.” was the status message of one of my friends on Facebook when the story of Amina’s ‘abduction’ was first doing the rounds. Now no one is touching it. As The Washington Post succinctly notes,

One activist contacted in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said he doubts Arraf is real and expressed concern that the opposition’s efforts to convey to the world the regime’s ruthlessness will be undermined by the apparent fabrication. “It’s selfish because it means real issues in the future won’t be taken seriously at all,” he said, speaking via Skype on the condition of anonymity because he fears the consequences of talking to the media.

And there’s the rub. Amina’s episode casts a shadow of doubt over the entire Syrian activist landscape online, raises (valid) questions over who to believe, and how to ascertain the veracity of what is posted on blogs and social networks. These are now familiar challenges. Part of what I do in Sri Lanka is to train mid-career journalists in the new media literacy they need to avoid being beguiled by examples like A Gay Girl in Damascus, or more accurately, to treat the information therein in much the same way as any other source in journalism.  As I note in Online propaganda of pseudo-patriots: Need for digital media literacy,

With the increasing sophistication of online propaganda, including campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr (inter-linked and with multiple campaign on each platform), journalists need to, inter alia,

  1. Know how to cut through retweets and get to the originator of a message,
  2. Ascertain the legitimacy of a Facebook profile,
  3. Do basic digital photo forensics using online tools to determine what, if anything, has been altered, where a photo has been used previously and sourced from
  4. Determine the registrant of a website across multiple domain registrars, if this information is in the public domain
  5. Use advanced search features of Google to hone in on key phrases, sites, file type, date ranges and sources
  6. Learn to use online visualisation tools to tell a story otherwise too complex or technical to articulate in words (e.g. money laundering networks, or connections between various diaspora groups)

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