Monday, June 13, 2011

The Syrian Lesbian Blogger: When Best Intentions Get Lost

The blogosphere went into overdrive this week as the mysterious identity of a young Arab lesbian blogger who was apparently kidnapped last week in Syria has been revealed conclusively to be a hoax. The blogs were written not by a gay girl in Damascus, but a middle-aged American man named as Tom MacMaster who is based in Scotland and studying for a Masters at Edinburgh University.

Whilst we can only sit and wonder what subject he is studying I think we can all be confident that a role in diplomacy may pass him by as he has managed to spark a worldwide campaign to get the woman released only later to reveal the whole thing was a vehicle he created to air his views.

On Sunday, an "apology to readers" appeared on the blog signed by Tom MacMaster who said he was "the sole author of all posts on this blog".

Mr MacMaster, who is on holiday in Turkey, told BBC Scotland in an interview: "I really felt a number of years ago, in discussions on Middle East issues in the US, often when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to someone with my name was: 'Why are you anti-American? Why are you anti-Jewish?'

"So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue."

So Amina, the nom de plume of Tom MacMaster, became the focus of an international media media campaign after a post which was said to be written by Amina's cousin said she had been seized by armed men believed to be members of President Assad's Baath party; and it was all a hoax.

One apology later and the recriminations started to flow toward Mr MacMaster as the full implications of his fictitious blog were unfolding in front of the very audience he had hoped to preach his views too.

MacMaster's assertion "I do not believe that I have harmed anyone" was not met with much sympathy, activists were furious.

Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym for the Damascus editor of GayMiddleEast wrote: "To Mr MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.

"Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina's arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really … Shame on you!!!"

"What a waste of time when we are trying so hard to get news out of Syria," another Damascus activist told the Guardian.

Blogs are meant to entertain, inspire, inform and help people create all manner of content and broadcast it to the world; most of it is irrelevant and no more than personal musings but we accept this when we read them . However what Tom MacMaster created was different, his blog could have have had serious implications for people trying to help Amina and endangered those he was allegedly trying to speak up for.

It is also questionable as to whether his form of speaking out was actually going to benefit anyone; when people support or follow a cause that is close to them they expect the activists they support are real.

And by unwinding Amina back from the kidnap incident and declaring his hand all that Tom MacMaster managed to do was create a backlash from the very people he was trying to give a voice too.

Of course, creating a blog under a pseudonym to conceal an identity is nothing new; perhaps one of the most famous ones was the nom de plume 'Belle De Jour' who wrote her 'Diary of a London Call Girl' which was based on her real life experiences of being a call girl.

Belle De Jour was in fact a pseudonym used to hide the identity of Brooke Magnanti. In November 2009, reportedly fearing her real identity was about to come out, Magnanti revealed her real name and occupation as a child health scientist.

But that case is totally different to the one that Tom MacMaster has created; where as you could cite that the 'Diary of a London Call Girl' had no intention to harm or waste time, the character created by MacMaster was done so solely to help him vent his own opinions in a way that would create the maximum amount of publicity.

So is this unfortunate incident the price we pay for the democratisation of the media? Practising free speech and being able to air our opinions to the world at the touch of a button is one of the truly revolutionary things that has been a product of the internet, but at what cost?

Whereas previous generations of activists had only their placards and the support of some of the world's media to air their campaigns, today activists can now desktop publish their way into the hearts and minds and indeed homes of millions of people simply by pressing enter on their computers.

This is, on the whole, a good thing. The Arab Spring would not be anywhere near as widely reported if were not for the amount of bloggers out there using the social web tools at their disposal to give the world an untarnished view of events in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain to name a few.

We have all seen the reports filed by frustrated journalists who have been taken by government officials in Libya to specially selected areas of interest to help groom worldwide opinion of the Gaddafi regime they are so desperate for us to see. The minute any reporters try to deviate from the selected path they are stopped, their cameras taken and in some cases even beaten up.

No matter how powerful Gaddafi's henchmen are though, they will never be able to silence a population armed with the power of the internet, a computer and a camera phone.

But there will always been the odd one that slips through the net and whilst Tom MacMaster has had his 15 minutes of fame, we can only hope that he has not done untold damage to the reputations of the thousands of bloggers in these regions who are doing extremely valuable work at considerable risk to themselves and telling the world what is happening during these volatile times.

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