Online impersonation redux

The recently concluded MIT Civic Media Conference as well as the panel I was on at the 2011 SAJA Convention repeatedly referred to the case of the Gay Blogger in Damascus as a central challenge for journalists reporting on contexts where there is little or no independently verifiable information other than what is published online by largely unknown sources. Syria is the case du jour. Turns out a case in Israel is another cogent example. As the New York Times blog The Lede notes,

“A YouTube video featuring a man who presented himself as an American gay rights activist disillusioned with the latest Gaza flotilla campaign has been exposed as a hoax.

The man in the video, who introduced himself to viewers as Marc and claimed that the organizers of the latest flotilla of ships bound for Gaza had rejected his offer to mobilize a network of gay activists in support of their cause, was identified as Omer Gershon, a Tel Aviv actor involved in marketing, by the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian Web site.”

Worth noting is that the real identity behind the Gay Blogger in Damascus blog was also revealed first by Electronic Intifada. Good coverage of this issue, along with an interview from a representative of the Electronic Intifada can be seen in the first half of this episode of Al Jazeera’s Listening Post (links to iTunes podcast of the programme).

‘Marc Pax’ the ‘gay activist’ in the YouTube video (which is still online) turns out to be an actor. The Israeli government is supposedly duped, but there could be another side to this. As noted again in The Lede,

“Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian-American founder of the Electronic Intifada,suggested on Twitter that the video hoax was not a prank but part of a public relations campaign to support the Israeli government’s naval blockade of Gaza by seeking to tarnish the Gaza flotilla activists as homophobic.”

The reaction to both incidents often borders on the extreme, in that those who completely believed both (arguably, it was hard not to), hurt by the revelation that they are false and misleading, now tend to disbelieve everything posted online. There will be more examples that crop up in the future. If as it is made out by the Lede, suspicions over Marc Pax’s video where first raised on account of the professional production qualities of his video, we can expect professional productions with deliberately poor lighting and editing to make their way to YouTube, making it that much harder to ascertain the veracity of content from complex, violent contexts.

As the same Al Jazeera episode linked to above notes in relation to post-genocide Rwanda’s media context, false news stories planted by repressive regimes, when taken up and republished by mainstream or citizen journalists, risk their reputation and credibility when exposed. This can be a powerful strategy for repressive regimes to undermine the often searing and honest insights posted online by citizens who bear witness using new media. One or two examples are enough to suspect a larger movement, and this works in favour of those who seek to censor.

As I have often noted, a way out, although an imperfect one subject to continuous learning, is for journalists to be more digital media literate. Twitter itself publishes valuable resources in this regard, and some other suggestions of mine, based on years of  teaching digital media basics and strategies in Sri Lanka, can be read here.

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