Be assured administrators of this site - who were friends with "Amina" online - are just as angry as everyone else over the revelation made by Tom MacMaster. This foolish and cruel hoax has distracted from the real issue in Syria - that the Syrian people are sacrificing their lives for calling for an end to a regime that silences, disappears, tortures and murders its people, a regime that has repeatedly fired directly into peaceful demonstrations. Thousands of political prisoners are being held by authorities, with many of them undergoing torture right now. The world should know about the courage and suffering of these innocent Syrians and stand with them.Someone behind that blog knew Syria pretty well, and wrote convincingly. I'd been reading "her" blog even before the "abduction" and had even linked to it. Credit must go to those who smelled something fishy early on: by last Wednesday there were already red flags, raised first (so far as I am aware) by NPR's Andy Carvin, followed soon by Robert Mackey at the NYT's the Lede (link is to an updated version.) Liz Henry was also on the case early on, and as near as I can tell she, along with The Electronic Intifada, are the people who finally ran this thing to ground. Read their posts for the evidence. Some other reactions here.
It gets still stranger. A lesbian-oriented website called The LEZ Get Real which helped promote Amina has also published an apology. But The Electronic Intifada investigation has also raised questions about the existence or non-existence of the purported Executive Editor of that website, "Paula Brooks", whose real world identity seems a bit thin. Are we completely in sockpuppet (linked above, but essentially a false online identity) country here? [Later Update: "Paula Brooks" was a guy, too. Are we learning about some new Internet fetish here, or what?]
Of course like anyone moderately familiar with the culture of the Internet I realize that what you see is not, always, what you get, and that the idea of the "sockpuppet" can rarely be excluded. The famous New Yorker cartoon of some years back, at left (I hope The New Yorker copyright lawyers will see this as fair use) summarizes it perfectly.
Anonymous blogging is fine. Many of the finest bloggers in the Middle East either started out, or remain, anonymous for good, survival-related reasons; but I assume when I read them that their basic personas are real; even if I don't know their names. The guys are guys; the women are women; the young people are young. Those that have unveiled their real identities in the age of revolution have pretty much matched up with their anonymous persona. I didn't care if the "Gay Girl in Damascus" was really named Amina or not: as her story crumbled a lot of us waited, fearing she was a real person who'd used a fake name and stolen somebody else's Facebook photos, but might in fact be in a Syrian jail. As online sleuths demolished first her photos, then her not very detailed biography (searching Virginia and Georgia records for her claimed background and finding no records), it became clear that both her photos and her name were fake. A 2007 blog under the same name offered fragments of autobiography, with a birth in Staunton, Virginia, and being raised in Damascus and Virginia. That blog admitted it included fictional elements. (It does, however, show a familiarity with the real Shenandoah Valley, especially the Harrisonburg-Dayton-Bridgewater area. If I have anything to add to this overall investigation it is to say that her (fictional) childhood town of "Riverport" is almost certainly Bridgewater, a town I know well. The description, the neighboring towns, the river and the Old Order Mennonites pretty much nail it.)
But as long as there was a chance there was a real person, with another name and another photo, in a Syrian prison (or worse), I didn't want to pile on. But now that we see this as a complete invention, with no real person involved, I want to see more than a brief apology that says we meant well. Harm has been done to the communities involved and, worse, the international press has been diverted from a humanitarian horror in Syria by a blogger-driven diversion.
What makes it worse is that I contributed to it, and inadvertently committed the prestige of The Middle East Institute and Middle East Journal as well. So did a whole lot of other good folk and true, who are hoping for real change in Syria. Shame on these insensitive hoaxers who. whatever their misguided intentions, may have cost lives among the real people who live in the real Syria. There are real gay girls in Damascus and in Syria, but you cannot speak for them. We are not they. During the Tahrir days, many Westerners said "We are all Egyptians." No we aren't, and no we weren't; our butts weren't on the line and nobody was threatening us with live ammunition. Pretending you're a frontline dissident is like pretending you're a Medal of Honor Veteran: it steals from those who really are, and it demeans you. Fiction hurts those whose butts really are on the line, and all Syrians who are living a real nightmare and are really being abducted. Shame.