Image courtesy The Telegraph
I first wrote about the purported abduction of Amina Abdallah Arraf The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media. In what can only be called a bizarre twist, the author of A Gay Girl in Damascus turns out to be a Tom MacMaster, an American 40-year-old graduate student. The New York’s Times blog The Lede has the details, but it turns out that the entire blog is a fictional account, based on a stolen identity. The most recent post on A Gay Girl in Damascus, now called ‘A Hoax’, is an apology by MacMaster, which notes that,
“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.”
MacMaster’s suggestion that he has not harmed anyone is incredible. There is no mention of Jelena Lecic, whose identity MacMaster stole. There is no reflection about what this elaborate hoax means for real activists, and real issues in Syria, since it puts into question everything that was written on the blog, whether or not it mirrored reality. There is seemingly no cognition that this is good fodder for brutish Syrian authorities to conveniently suggest that other content online is actually false. It calls to question Facebook as a tools for activism, if spoofing an identity is so easy. It calls to question http://lezgetreal.com, which had posted an article suggesting Amina was actually “a 35 year-old lesbian living in Edinburgh, Scotland”. This post and in fact, the content on this entire site has since been taken down, and The Lede hints that this site is also run by MacMaster. A PDF of a Google Cache copy of this page can be read here.
In The ‘abduction’ of a gay activist in Syria: A cautionary tale for media I reiterated the need for media to improve their digital media literacy in order to be more resilient to fraudulent characters on the web. What’s sad is that so many of the news outlets that published stories on Amina, even when increasingly sceptical of the story, continued to use Jelena Lecic’s photo in their coverage, or didn’t take it down from their websites. The media, in this case, served to strengthen MacMaster’s callous attitude as much as they now seek to expose him as a fraud.
An Israeli blogger named Elizabeth Tsurkov, who had interacted at length with ‘Amina’ online, noted to The Lede in an e-mail,
“I reacted more strongly than most people to the news of Amina’s kidnapping because I felt that I knew the person who was kidnapped, but many other people who had simply read the blog were terrified. I’m not sure there is a way to protect oneself from such sociopaths, but I know that I will try to distance myself emotionally from people that I am not very familiar with online.”
Elizabeth speaks for so many of us. As for MacMaster, the media should now treat him the way they treated Amina’s abduction. Include as many photos of him as they can find in the news stories on this issue, so that the long memory of Google also captures for posterity and exposes him for what he is – a sociopath, a fraud.
As for Facebook itself, the platform from which Jessica says her identity was stolen by MacMaster, I wonder whether its controversial face recognition technology can play a more positive role? If the company chooses to do so, it can warn other users of photos that appear on its social network which may be a false identity, done simply by flagging photos that are tagged as one identity appearing in other instances / profiles / albums / walls as another, or alongside claims to be someone else.
What other ideas do you have to sniff out and avoid similar online debacles?