13 June 2011

Note to self: don't pretend to be a lesbian blogger in Syria.

One of the more prominent and unfortunate global news stories circulating today is the hoax perpetrated by Tom MacMaster, an American student currently living in Scotland.  For months he's published a blog called "A Gay Girl in Damascus" and assumed a fictional identity named Amina Abdallah Araf al Omani.

The blog included fascinating stories of politics, culture and intrigue.  There were breathless accounts of going into hiding, standing up to police, demonstrating in the streets, and assuming the voice of the opposition in one of the world's most closed off countries in the midst of this historic "Arab Spring."  There were detailed personal accounts of coming out as a lesbian in a highly conservative, highly religious country.  Then there was the gripping note that Amina had been captured.  The stories rallied thousands and Amina became a heroine.

And it was all fake.

Of course, while he seems to think he hasn't really done much wrong, smarter people like Ethan Zuckerman beg to differ with him. Zuckerman is the founder of Global Voices Online, one of my favorite sites on the 'net and a global aggregator of citizen-journalist-generated content.   Zuckerman's take is a thorough smackdown and well worth reading, and here's just one of his points:
MacMaster’s project is going to complicate the work of anyone who tries to bring marginal voices into the dialog through citizen media. The question I’ve been most often asked since founding Global Voices is a question about authenticity: “How can we know that any of these people blogging and tweeting are real people?”
As a PR guy, my inclination is often to spin the upside - MacMaster has managed to do one thing no one else has.  The downside, of course, is that "one thing" is "add credibility to the government of Syria," as they denied ever holding Amina.

Perhaps it shouldn't amaze me that people still ignore or forget a very basic rule of public relations - don't pretend to be someone you're not.   Doing so essentially guarantees that whatever message you're trying to send gets lost.  This example is perhaps a bit more colorful, and a bit more tragic, but it's not even the only incident in recent memory. In my business we see companies all the time who want certain messages or facts to "get out there" but don't feel confident speaking in their own voice, often with good reason. All I can say is it's not often you can be successful making a point without telling people who you are.

What upsets me most right now is MacMaster's protestations that coverage of his hoax is drawing attention from real people facing real crises in Syria.  That he fails to understand he was the one drawing attention from the real conflict by hijacking Syrians' voices is beyond ironic.

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