Monday, June 13, 2011

Damascus Gay Girl's lesson to the online activism community

For the last few weeks, a large part of the blog reading world, the twitterverse, and Facebook have been laser focused on the blog of Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, a lesbian blogger who went by the name "Damascus Gay Girl" and purportedly living in Syria. In her blog, Amina wrote about the challenges gay people in Syria (and in many other parts of the middle east) face while living in countries that often execute gays and routinely deny even basic civil rights to this growing portion of the population based solely on their sexual orientation.

Days ago, Amina was reported missing by her cousin Rania. According to Rania, Amina went to meet with a local council member, got separated from her companion and was seized by three armed men who were assumed to be from the Syrian security forces. She was taken away in a car and her whereabouts were unknown.

Almost immediately, there was a worldwide outcry. Facebook groups demanding the ruling Baath party reveal her whereabouts were formed, blog posts were written, tweeted, and retweted, and the online activism community was immediately in arms ready to do what they could to help find and free Amina.

The problem was that none of it was true. Not a single word.

On Monday, a man identifying himself Tom MacMaster and posting from Turkey, confessed that he'd made the entire thing up. There was no Amina, no Rania, no kidnapping. It was all a hoax designed to bring attention to the plight of gays and lesbians living in oppressive regimes. He apologized and took full responsibility for the damage he might have caused.

I don't think it's enough. This kind of thing has happened before. Mr. MacMaster wasn't the first to fake a voice and I'm sure he won't be the last. But do the people who do things like he did fully understand the potential gravity of the situations they are creating?

Damascus Gay Girl wasn't real and her security and life were never really in danger, thankfully. But her story could represent any of the thousands of stories gays and lesbians throughout the middle east could tell. While Mr. MacMaster made up Amina, he did not make up the crisis she would have faced if she had in fact been real.

His words emboldened people throughout the region - throughout the world, really, to dare to think that, if Amina could be so brave, they could be too. Those people were real. They weren't the invention of some misguided writer and their real lives were put at risk. What Mr. MacMaster did was unconscionable and thoughtless and could possibly have gotten people killed. That is unforgivable; an apology is simply not enough.

But in a way, I think this hoax did point out one of the inherent weaknesses of online activism: verification. We really are forced to take everyone at their word and, sometimes, people do strange things for even stranger reasons. Mr. MacMaster could have been anyone: a hostile government trying to identify those within the country that sympathized with Amina, a jilted lover trying to get revenge on an innocent woman, or even a propaganda organization trying to sway public opinion one way or another. Online, we often have no way of knowing the truth and the task of finding it is only going to get tougher as technology advances.

So how should the online community react in situations like these? Should we stop responding to every random blog post or tweet from an oppressed person because we fear the may not exist? Should we continue to respond in hopes that one voice might indeed change the world? The answer to that question may well be one we won't be able to answer in the foreseeable future but I think it should give us a moment of pause next time we think of clicking retweet or encouraging others to act based solely on a single voice. Advocating a cause is an admirable thing, but we have to do so with a full understanding of the potential ramifications of where that advocacy may lead. We are sitting behind a computer, safe, fed, and secure. Those who we are advocating for, those we are empowering and encouraging are risking their lives and the lives of their family. If we're wrong in our advocacy, we move on to the next crisis, if they act on our incorrect or fraudulent information they die. Not quite the same thing, is it?

In the end, I'm not saying don't advocate. I have no plans not to continue acting online for others; what's at risk is too important. But I am saying use judgement. just because something seems true doesn't mean it is. There were questionable aspects of Aminia's story that should have led to greater scrutiny but nobody checked them out. Everyone wanted to be supportive and not critical. After it's all said and done, being critical might have saved lives while unquestioned support may have cost them.

Sometimes, it's good to take a moment and assess things. Amina's story was heart wrenching but it was nothing but an illusion; an illustration of the depth of human foolishness. Be careful folks. We're not playing a computer game here. Real lives are at stake; real lives are being lost. Someone could be tortured and killed because of something *you* tweet. Think about that next time before hitting the retweet button or reblogging a post. I personally don't want a death on my hands. I doubt any of you do either.

Be careful. Be vigilant. Keep everyone safe.

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