Fraudulent moneymaking schemes play upon the greed of their intended victims; the lure of easy money causes victims to suspend disbelief. The journalistic equivalent is the sudden appearance of the too-good-to-be-true source who dangles a story perfectly aligned with the journalist's worldview. That is what happened with the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax. Gullible news organizations were so taken with the bloggings of a purported gay girl living in Damascus, who pushed all the right ideological and emotional buttons, that they failed to carry out their professional obligation to vet an unsubstantiated source.
The outlets involved should have known better. It's not as if media hoaxes are novel to the region. The Israeli-Arab conflict alone has witnessed its share over the past decade.
There was the widely-publicized "fauxtography" fraud that occurred during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon. Observant bloggers, rather than professional journalists, exposed how Reuters' cameramen manipulated images and staged scenes.
In October 2000, at the outbreak of the second intifada, French News Channel 4 gave the world the dramatic scene of a young boy and his father caught in cross-fire between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants. The boy, Mohammed al-Dura, we were told, was shot dead by Israeli troops. In the wake of investigations and lawsuits, the original story lies in tatters, with serious questions raised about every element of it.
Then there is the infamous photograph appearing in September 2000 of the bloodied young man and an Israeli policeman menacingly hovering over him. The Associated Press's caption "An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount" could only evoke sympathy for the beaten Palestinians. Newspapers ran with it. In fact, the young man in the photo was a Jewish student from Chicago who had been dragged out of his car by an Arab mob. The policeman had rescued him and was protecting him from his attackers just outside of the cameras image. Only after the young man's father conducted a campaign publicizing the media mistake did the New York Times offer a full explanation and correction.
The common thread connecting these hoaxes is complicit media, allowing themselves to be manipulated because the story suits so well their assumptions. This same complicity underlay the failure of the media to derail the "A Gay Girl in Damascus" story promptly.
Too Good to Be True
On June 7, news outlets were abuzz over the alleged abduction of Amina Abdallah Arraf, author of "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blog. Since mid-February, Amina's blog had attracted admiring attention from journalists around the world for purportedly revealing what was happening in Syria through the lens of a progressive, gay woman. In early May, TIME magazine's Jenny Wilson gushed, "Inspiring the Syrian protest movement is an honest and reflective voice of the revolution: a half-American citizen journalist who, in illustrating her country's plight, risks death."
On June 6, a post on Arraf's web site, ostensibly by a cousin, reported the tragic news that she'd been abducted in a Damascus street by armed men. Western audiences reacted with shock, a "Free Amina Arraf" Facebook page drew 14,000 supporters. The U.S. State Department said it was making inquiries to establish her identity.
The following day, Londons Guardian
, the Associated Press, National Public Radio
, Al Jazeera and numerous newspapers, Internet Web sites and broadcast networks rushed to publicize Amina's compelling story. Because the recipient of Amina's e-mails was a Montreal resident - Canadian broadcaster, Global Montreal
, ran a several minute segment presenting Amina's abduction as straight-forward news reporting.
Then the story began to quickly unravel. London resident, Jelena Lecic, saw her Facebook photographs on the Guardian's blog site labeled as photographs of Amina. Lecic contacted the Guardian twice expressing her dismay at the mislabeled photos of her. She later told the BBC that the Guardian was initially unresponsive.
Lecic appeared on a BBC program during which the host questioned whether Amina existed, but suggested the best explanation was that Amina was using the fake photographs because she lives in a police state. It was up to the second guest on the show, Syrian human rights activist Mahmoud Hamad, to provide a more reasoned assessment, describing the story as a "case of lazy journalism" and expressing doubt that she existed.
Online sleuths raised doubts about the veracity of Amina Arraf including Andy Carvin of NPR and blogger Liz Henry. But it was the information provided by Paula Brooks
, founder of an American lesbian site, LezGetReal
, that alerted investigators that the Internet Protocol address used by Arraf, who had initially posted on the site, was based at Edinburgh University in Scotland. Eventually, they were able to connect Amina's posts to a 40-year-old American student at the university named Tom MacMaster.
MacMaster denied any involvement in the matter, ridiculing the accusation. But confronted with insurmountable evidence, he soon confessed to being Amina. Then, Paula Brooks, who had been instrumental in exposing MacMaster as the faux gay girl in Damascus, was revealed to be a middle-aged male construction worker living in Ohio named Bill Graber. Syndicated columnist Mark Steyn wondered, Is Every Lesbian Blogger a Middle Aged Man
. Graber, the lesbian impersonator, provided the most evocative assessment of his role, stating "He [MacMaster] would have got away with it if I hadn't been such a stand-up guy."
MacMaster justified his actions, stating,
I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. 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.
Some have expressed sympathy for MacMaster, suggesting he was well-intentioned, if misguided. But most have been sharply critical of his deception.
But there is more to this story: MacMaster, the son of a Mennonite pastor, is a longtime pro-Palestinian activist and member of Edinburgh's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. Prior to arriving in Scotland, he served as the co-chair for a group called Atlanta Palestine Solidarity. In a Facebook note
he apparently sent after the group folded (by its subject matter and consistent viewpoint compared to his other writings, it appears valid), MacMaster wrote that "attempting to not offend soft Zionists" had been a mistake and he regretted that "a handful of people were given veto power over statements that might express solidarity with the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS)." Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by the United States, European Union and other countries. The radical International Solidarity Movement, which recruits young Westerners to interfere with Israeli anti-terrorist operations, was not radical enough for him. He accused it of "infantile leftism."
In an op-ed published in a magazine called the Asian Outlook, MacMaster whitewashes the history of Palestinian terrorism, writing, "In the years after the birth of Israel, the tactic of 'sumud' (steadfastness) developed among the Palestinians under Israeli rule. In this conception, every individual Palestinian was to use passive, non-violent resistance to Israeli rule."
He goes on to implicitly support Palestinian violence against Israel, alleging that
consistently, the Israeli military has responded to non-violent demonstrators with violence... Until the Israelis advance to a receptive state on a par with what the white South had achieved by the 1950s and 1960s, I think advising Palestinians to lead non-violent marches is simply an invitation for more repression.
It might disappoint Amina's most dogged admirers that MacMaster also warned against allowing members of a reconstructed Atlanta Palestine Solidarity group "to hijack the organization for their own feminist, gay rights, and anti-Islamic agendas."
His anti-Israel views are not incidental to the "A Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax. According to the BBC, MacMaster justified his assuming the avatar of a lesbian because he felt the message he wanted to convey would not be accepted if it came from a white Anglo male. He pointedly told the BBC Scotland:
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?
His concerns about being accused of anti-Jewish sentiment may have something to do with how he expresses himself on the topic of Israel. With his true identity concealed behind the avatar of Amina, MacMaster inveighed against Israel revealing an edge of resentment about the "chosen people." He accuses Israelis of conducting a "holy war" and takes the familiar self-exculpating pose of anti-Israel activists who charge supporters of Israel with trying to ruin the reputation of anyone who criticizes Israel, fairly or not:
The defenders of the Holy Nation will come and denounce me, will ask why it is that I do not see their cause as holy... Dont laugh; I am sure they will come. And they will again and again demonstrate their arrogance and their ignorance. When not claiming that their innate superiority in all things ...
His expressions of resentment resemble rhetoric commonly found on some radical blogs. Engaging in more historical revisionism, this time implying that Israel started the 1967 Six-Day War, Amina (MacMaster) writes,
I know that Jaulan [the Golan] was lost after the Syrians had agreed to cease fire. I know who started that war; it wasnt us. I know that the Israelis hold Jaulan because they would steal our water and need a nice platform to keep Damascus in their gunsights.
He then delves into the topic of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, a favorite recurring topic among anti-Semites despite official U.S. government determination that the attack was the result of a war-time mistake: "I know of American sailors who died to keep the world from knowing
" This blog item concludes with the ethnic cleansing accusation. "I know also of the ethnic cleansing that they undertook up there [the Golan Heights]; 131,000 people made homeless so that Russian migrants might have a place to illegally live."
In another blog item, Amina (Macmaster) describes Israels supporters as "lying liars and propagandists, the makers of hasbara and singers of paeans to the so-called Chosen."
A Family Affair
MacMasters involvement with the Palestinian cause is a family affair. He told the New York Times "that he and Ms. Froelicher had been drawn to one another by their shared interest in pro-Palestinian activism."He was referring to his wife Britta Froelicher, an activist associated with the anti-Israel Quaker group, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The group claims her involvement was terminated in 2008, but in an interview with Boycott and Divestment supporter and Anglican cleric Stephen Sizer in April 2011, she claimed to still be active.
In the interview, Froelicher said, "I dont personally support a two-state solution" and that "I dont have any particular hopes for any particular solution..." When asked again by Sizer, "You dont think the two state solution is realistic?" She answered, "Personally no ... One state solution.... There is no ethnically cleansed Israel." She then added, "Everyone screams and cries about Tibet ... the scale is not even the same as it is with Israel."
When queried by Sizer as to what activities she participates in concerning her activism, she stated " I organize events.... teachers education program ... Where we educate schools K through 8th grade ... [offering teachers] additional curricular material."
While there is no evidence she directly participated in her husband's fraud, it is clear that she approves of his intentions and his obsession with Israel. She defended his "Gay Girl" fraud claiming, "It was really an attempt to circumvent traditional news media and try to talk about things ... from a fresh perspective."
Since the exposure of the "A Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax, many of those who were duped have been forthcoming, publishing details of the affair. However, setting the record straight after the fact, though commendable, does not excuse the failure to properly investigate the credibility of a source before adopting it.
Journalists are supposed to question all sources - especially those they're most inclined to believe.
No matter how compelling a story appears, if it cannot be substantiated, it should not be accorded credibility and repeated as authentic by trusted news outlets.