The 'Gay Girl in Damascus' it turns out was neither in Damascus nor gay or female, for that matter.
This story has had the media world in a bit of a frenzy in the last fortnight. It is the story of an American man in the UK studying for his masters in Middle East studies who, while distracting himself from his thesis, distracted the whole internet and news world with him. But while detracting us from real news on the Syrian ground, this blog fantasist also threw into relief some long-coming issues on credibility, trust and the changing nature of journalism. Follow the story in pictures of so-called 'Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari' as it unfolded. But first, this side note or introduction.
Questions of authority
Before this Arab Spring and arguably the Green Revolution of Iran, 'blog' journalism was hardly given the same attention and space as more traditional forms, or recognized as a legitimate source for news. Naturally there is a tradition of diary-keeping of memoirs and chronices, giving us insight into social and historical context, like wtih Ann Frank, but ideally one should not get carried away and read into them more than as such. Biography and fiction have their place in history and politics. But readers must tread with caution. The same for blogs.
Since the inception of the internet age, people have been tapping into the potential for fraud and identity abuse. Dating sites or chat rooms were the most susceptible spaces to suffer this exploitation, as 50-something men commonly posed as teenage boys or girls. Why does the veneer of 'journalist' or cyber activism suddenly rule out such scams- and these internet oftentimes 'personal' writings become cast into a different more respectable mold?
Given the recent ego lift to come about for the social media world, blogs are being lauded as credible sources of information, provided they meet reasonable standards in eloquence and visual design. As these platforms and sites took a value boost and models as Twitter rose in stature in times of political turmoil, becoming a critical outlet for information flow, and the tide of citizen journalism was upon us as, these self-appointed journalists independently and at times 'heroically' reported the news on the ground as they were resisting governments.
Then, just when everyone became receptive and comfortable with internet journalism in its role as a galvanizer of youth-movements in overthrowing dictators, it would have been very untimely to bring back the pre-Arab Spring rhetoric of the internet as a source of lies and pornography. Or else to chime in with those very leaders accusing the protests of being the product of foreign infiltration and conspiracy. In fact, since the outing of this fake and provocative blog act, the Syrian regime has officially released a statement calling into question internet credibility during this media hype, dismissing reported material from social media and the internet as 'clearly' dubious in light of claims of regime crimes toward the public.
The fact remains that a blog is, after all, just a self-started website with various bits of personal writing and nothing to suggest that any of it is certified as accurate or authoritative. Self-starters and self-appointed journalist types can hold forth to a receptive, at times, gullible audience.
The apology MacMaster issued by way of finally closing down his blog and with it putting to rest his scam, has not quitened down the blog affair. The mea culpa statement, as it has been touted, has not gone down well with either the de facto Gay and lesbian community in the Middle East, nor with 'serious' journalists who must be feeling a little 'had'. He adds that he was merely trying to "illuminate" things "for a western audience". A series of sarcastic and rather fuming angry responses have ensued, including:
'as a white male who pretend to be an out, half syrian, lesbian because he can totally speak to that experience, oh and why not just pick photos of an eastern european woman and circulate those because you know, foreign is foreign, right?'
However aside from being all too quick to blame this hoax internet crime and lash out at this Thomas MacMaster, as have the gay Arab community together with media and activists who either spent time following him or are disgruntled by the stolen thunder, some commentators have turned their critcism more inward and rebuked the suceptible audience we have been to play into the hands of this prankster. Brendan O’Neill captures it well:
"Those complaining about being duped, Scooby Doo-style, by the apparent master of disguise that is Tom MacMaster need to have a word with themselves: it was their openness to being duped, their embrace of the seemingly made-in-heaven ‘gay girl in Damascus’ narrative with its achingly right-on contrast between a morally sensitive LGBT gal and a male-dominated regime, which really blew this blog out of all proportion."
Other fall-outs from this 'sockpuppeting' (borrowing phony online identity with deceiptful intent) have come from the esteemed academic institution from which he operated- the University of Edinburgh. In his interview with the BBC, he did resolve to re-focus and dedicate himself back to his Masters dissertation as his next 'project'. Tom's cover has been blown and his anonymity destroyed as friends of Al Bawaba report students cooking up plans to order t-shirts into the campus shops in time for the celebrated annual arts & cultural blowout that is the Edinburgh Festival, sporting slogans about their disgraced peer Tom MacMaster - threatening cheekily to add him to their wall of fame alongside Darwin and Hume...
The university itself has not avoided the spotlight and repercussions, issuing official statements probing into his use of their internet for his underground activity:
"The University of Edinburgh is very concerned about recent reports relating to the activities of postgraduate student Tom MacMaster. His use of University computing facilities has been suspended while Vice Principal Knowledge Management and Chief Information Officer Professor Jeff Haywood conducts an investigation into possible misuse."