On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a hoax

So. Farewell then Amina Arraf. In some ways it’s a relief that you weren’t really a gay girl in Damascus, since it means you weren’t abducted by Assad’s thugs and subjected to the sort of unspeakable treatment that they specialise in.

In fact, “Amina” was a bearded heterosexual American man in Edinburgh. The “project” of inventing Amina seems to have grown out of Tom MacMaster’s frustration that no one was interested in his fictional writing.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of this is that the world now knows that Mr MacMaster can write compelling fiction.

Otherwise it’s hard to see what good has come out of this. Thousands of people (including me, for which I apologise) were misled into signing petitions demanding the release of a non-existent woman, while the Syrian authorities continue to arrest, beat and kill people with impunity.

As Angie Nassar points out, since *that* iconic cartoon was published everyone has realised that not everyone on the web is who they say they are. But as she says, a high-profile hoax like this casts doubt on the truth of information coming out of oppressive countries like Syria through YouTube, social networks and blogs. The tragedy is that most of this information is true.

Creating a fictional persona on the web is not always wrong. Many people have to blog anonymously for many reasons: like Zoe Margolis, they might be worried about the ethical implications of writing under their real name (not to mention the way being “outed” ruined her career). Or like two Syrian LGBT activists who have blogged explaining why they don’t accept Mr MacMaster’s apology, people may be forced to use pseudonyms to protect their lives and liberty.

But as those activists’ blog shows, Mr MacMaster’s deception has put people at risk. And his behaviour certainly was deceptive, as Liz Henry (one of the first people to raise doubts about Amina’s authenticity) points out. Having created a character, Mr MacMaster was no doubt sucked in to developing online friendships in her name, stealing photos of an unfortunate Londoner from Facebook and even giving interviews because the alternatives (either a wall of silence or admitting to his hoax) were too painful.

Despite being tricked once, we mustn’t let his hoax distract us from the very real oppression in Syria. We must also recognise that there are real people in a very similar position to the fictional Amina, as Mark Valladares argue:

The irony, of course, is that somewhere out there, there is almost certainly a young lesbian Syrian, whose experiences would make great, dramatic reportage. She probably doesn’t have internet access though and, even if she did, she probably wouldn’t be believed now.

Young Arabs frustrated by patriarchy and sexism, by autocracy and corruption, and by intolerance against “unnatural” sexuality do exist – and I have met some of them “in real life”. If we assume every “Westernised” Arab voice is a hoax we abandon real people who need our support. As Neil Monnery says, we should not sweep them under the carpet.

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