We're naive about the perils of anonymity.
It has to be said: The life of Amina Arraf was a good story. On a website called "Gay Girl in Damascus," this purportedly Syrian-American lesbian blogger wrestled with issues surrounding her national identity, her sexuality, her faith, and the future of her country at a time of open revolt. At a time when most of the information coming out of Syria comes in the form of choppy, graphic YouTube videos or breathless tweets about the Assad regime's crackdowns, here was a young woman writing from Damascus in flawless English about her country's social and political turmoil.
And then it all fell apart. Following a post on Amina's blog by her "cousin" reporting that she had been arrested and that her whereabouts were unknown, journalists and readers sprung into action, emailing one another and looking for friends and contacts who might know where she had been taken. Oddly, there were no real leads. None of the many people who had befriended her online had ever met her in person, pictures allegedly of Amina turned out to be a Croatian woman living in Britain, and an old blog written by the same person was self-described as a blend of fact and fiction -- "and I will not tell you which is which."
On June 12, Amina finally came out -- as Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American man who is currently pursuing a master's degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In an initial apology post that included a hint of defiance, MacMaster admitted that Amina was fictional, but that "the facts on this blog are true and not misleading" about the events in Syria. Finally, facing international opproprium, in a more contrite June 13 post, MacMaster donned sackloth, writing, "I feel like I am in some ways the worst person in the world."
This conceit gives MacMaster too much credit. It does not take an evil genius to launch a fictional blog. MacMaster is certainly a fool (and one hopes there's no Jayson Blair-esque book deal in the offing), but the more important question is why this particular fool was able to mislead so much of the Western media, and the public it serves. Part of the reason is that 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."