Gay Girl in Damascus Hoax: Pinkwashing Israel and Sock Puppetry Extraordinaire

By now, it’s all over the internet that Gay Girl in Damascus was outed.

Amina Arraf — a Syrian lesbian and emerging voice for gay Arabs whose views on the Arab Spring gained prominence in the Western media — is really Tom MacMaster, a heterosexual male, co-director of Atlanta-Palestine Solidarity, now suspended from his Ph.D studies at Edinburgh University.

The hoax unravelled when “Arraf” was supposedly taken away by Syrian authorities and readers launched a campaign. (Best details on that at NPR, where reporter Andy Carvin was the first to question whether Arraf was for real.) By the time MacMaster came out of the closet, the Western media had been duped — by a mere sock puppet:

A sockpuppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception within an online community. In its earliest usage, a sockpuppet was a false identity through which a member of an Internet community speaks with or about himself or herself, pretending to be a different person,  like a ventriloquist manipulating a hand puppet.

Note the corrections at AP, NY TimesThe Guardian, and CNN.

So why did MacMaster do it? He told The Guardian, quite frankly:

He had started the blog, he said, because he believed online posts about the Syrian and Israel-Palestinian situations would earn “some deference from obnoxious men” if written under an Arab woman’s name rather than under his own, where “someone would immediately ask: why do you hate America? why do you hate freedom? This sort of thing.”

Screengrab from Facebook

And in his apology, MacMaster adds:

I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction.

So, I invented her.

The ends justified the means. Any other white, male, Palestinian supporters out there blogging, Facebooking or tweeting under more exotic identities?

Of all the commentary addressing the deception, Jonah Goldberg makes the strongest point that MacMaster’s pseudo-blogging went beyond lying:

Worse, it’s propaganda. McMaster’s fake-but-accurate lesbian was perfectly pitched to Western liberals desperate to alleviate the pain of cognitive dissonance. No longer must you think too hard or make tough choices if you’re, say, anti-Israel and pro-democracy or pro-gay rights and in favor of the self-determination of Muslim fanatics. Heck, you can even stop worrying and love a lesbian feminist who sees no big deal in wearing a religiously required sack over her head.

Of course she was a hero.

David Kenner explains why Big Media was so easily duped by “Arraf,” even though not one journalist ever met her:

. . . media standards have yet to catch up with the realities (and temptations) of instant online publishing: Tools like e-mail, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook may represent a digital revolution, but they also can conceal an author’s identity — and, in this case, a lie that would have easily been exposed with a quick phone call.

But MacMaster’s hoax has implications that go beyond the damaged credibility of the New York Times and CNN, two of the many media outlets that reported on Amina over the past several months. The story played perfectly into Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s effort to portray the domestic revolt as one guided by shadowy outsiders — indeed, Syria’s official government mouthpiece prominently featured a profile of MacMaster, claiming that the hoax “aimed at enhancing continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of (sic) kidnapping bloggers and activists.”

CNN deserves closer scrutiny. MacMaster lied to CNN by posing as someone else, then criticized the network for “pinkwashing” Israel — a term Israel’s critics use to describe what they consider the “whitewashing” of Israel specifically because it offers considerable more gay freedom than other Arab states. As far as the LGBT community’s concerned, Israel’s just can’t do anything right.

Hmmmm. I wonder what MacMaster would say about Gay Rights Offends Time Magazine’s Image of Israel. Tom, I invite you to post your comments — but please use your real name.

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