THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Juliette Kayyem

A fake blog can cause real problems

Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old Edinburgh University master’s student and Middle East activist, wrote the fake “A Gay Girl in Damascus’’ blog. Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old Edinburgh University master’s student and Middle East activist, wrote the fake “A Gay Girl in Damascus’’ blog. (Getty Images)
By Juliette Kayyem
June 20, 2011

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ON FEB. 19, 2011, Amina Abdullah Arraf al Omar, a 35-year-old Syrian-American, was born. Her blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus,’’ was a dramatic account of the violence now engulfing Syria. As a gay woman, she wrote frankly about her sexuality in an autocratic state. And, like so many in her global audience, she was optimistic for the Syrian people and their revolution.

Her 142 postings were heralded as “heroic’’ by major media outlets. She was trending in social media. She was a sensation. So when she was kidnapped by security forces, the State Department launched an investigation, newspapers wrote of her abduction, and human rights groups started a letter-writing campaign.

Where was Amina? We wanted Amina because her greatest appeal was that she was us — complex and yet hopeful. She was a woman who could create a new Arab order.

Amina, we now know, is a straight white American man living in Scotland, Tom MacMaster. He looks nothing like the persona he created, but he needed her to highlight the atrocities in Syria. Syria, he believed, demanded a hero, and he chose Amina, who pushed the limits on race (she was the union of an “American tale and an Arabian tale’’), sexuality, and violence to become an appealing universal character.

The media — who had embraced the Google guy in Egypt, and now the gay girl in Syria — were obviously duped, believing an unsubstantiated, and, in hindsight, clearly misleading blog. But, the real damage about Gay Girl is not to the media. Blogs and social media have done far more good in documenting the atrocities in the Middle East than not. This is no Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke scandal. It is about the corrupt desire of MacMaster and some like-minded activists to create a narrative to promote their ideology.

Making up a story of atrocity is simply not a legitimate means of promoting social justice. “I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about,’’ wrote MacMaster in his defense.

This is truthiness for the Arab Spring. MacMaster appealed to our own desire to paint a happy face on a distinctly unhappy situation. Amina was supposed to be Anne Frank, but only free and blogging. The very fact that she could continue to write throughout the violence was proof to her readers that maybe, just maybe, the Syrian autocracy wasn’t as cruel and omnipresent as it seemed to be.

Amina is part of a long tradition of soothing sayers, created to make us feel kinship, and in some cases to justify our actions. She is the Iraqis that would greet us in the streets with flowers, the Libyan rebels who were organized and on the verge of victory, and, even earlier, the Cubans who would join us at the Bay of Pigs.

The picture of Amina — it was taken from the Facebook page of a London woman — is eerily similar to the images of the three girls on the cover of Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea.’’ They are all young, slightly hidden by light, a turn of the head, or a burka. They are beautiful, because every story of hope must have beauty. And they are not entirely true.

“Three Cups’’ had made us believe that Pakistan and Afghanistan were not about drone warfare, terrorists, or the tenuous progress of our military engagement. It made us believe that supporting girls and schools would ultimately lead to a new relationship with the tribal regions.

Mortenson and MacMaster share something else in common. They didn’t simply fictionalize suffering: they ended up furthering it. After Mortenson was confronted in a “60 Minutes’’ expose for making up stories, he and his schools became exiles of the social development world. After MacMaster was confronted, Syrian President Bashar Assad assailed him as proof that the “rebels’’ were nefarious outsiders supported by the West. Future social media storytellers from the Arab world will be inherently suspect.

Deadly conflicts breed enough real-life heroes who can help expose atrocities in places like Syria. It does nothing for their cause to create fictional ones. Even Gay Girl in Damascus, because there surely is one, would agree.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.