when the internet stops being a playground

Last week, a post appeared on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog reporting that the blog’s author, Amina Arraf, had been kidnapped by security forces. People responded. They tweeted, they wrote to Syrian embassies, the news got picked up by LGBT and mainstream news.

However, there were doubts about whether this person existed. Liz Henry observed “I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support”. What if this person did exist and was in danger? Amina may not exist – but what if she did, what if she had been kidnapped and was being forcibly deported, beaten or abused? The stakes seemed too high to just dismiss it.

Liz Henry had her doubts, based on experience with other hoaxes, and wrote about them in two posts: Painful doubts about Amina and Chasing Amina. Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty carefully examined what evidence they had to work out Amina’s identity.

The Amina blogger turned out to be Tom McMaster – a 40 year old male Masters student studying in Edinburgh. He apologised, claiming that he did “not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about”. LGBT bloggers in Syria were understandably furious. Contrary to McMaster’s claim that he did not harm anyone, they describe tangible ways he has made their lives and online activities less safe – drawing authorities’ attention to their activism, forcing them back into the closet, caused people to doubt their existence or the authenticity of their reports. As Brian Whitaker says, “[l]iving a fantasy life on your own blog is one thing, but giving an interview to CNN while posing as a representative of the region’s gay people appears arrogant and offensive, and surely a prime example of the “liberal Orientalism” that MacMaster claims to decry”.

In a weird twist, the editor of “Lez Get Real”, Paula Brooks, has also turned out to be a straight man. He said that he “didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man”. I have to admit, with some annoyance, that I have not noticed straight, cisgendered, white men as having a particular problem with “not being taken seriously” – this is privilege 101 stuff.

What this seems to be is a clash of internet cultures. On one hand, the internet is perceived as a playground for identities. As Liz Henry notes, people may have good reason “to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. They might like to express an aspect of their personality that would not mix well with their professional life. They might have gender identity issues they are working through. They might be in a family situation that makes it unsafe for them to come out as gay. They might write fiction using characters whose stories are under copyright”.

However, on the other, citizen journalism and minority blogging relies on authenticity; of you experiencing something that mainstream media doesn’t cover. It relies on telling your truth, shining light into areas where top-down media does not, or cannot, reach. It can be incredibly powerful – Baghdad Burning was just one example. There’s a tension between the internet as a consequence-free playground for identity, and the fact that sometimes these identities have very real consequences.

I also note that it’s straight white men doing this, and I’m finding it difficult to interpret this in isolation of that. @paleblurrr observed, in a series of tweets, “straight and/or white men not getting automatic respect/authority afforded to them in mainstream society in queer and/or poc communities, instead of respectful engagement from a place of privilege, fake identities to infiltrate and feel “powerful”. that’s all about power & control, ensuring they dominate conversations & are centre of our attention at whatever cost to others. can’t ever not be about them. Ever.”

I think what bothers me is the deliberate lying, manipulation and deception. Not stating your identity and allowing people to make their assumptions is one thing. Experimenting with different voices and persona in a setting where that’s acceptable and acknowledged is another. But creating a persona that is a member of a minority group and using that to speak on behalf of people when you do not share their lives, experiences or oppressions, and putting real people in danger when they cared about your created persona? That seems different, and makes it a much more complicated, uncomfortable and deeply problematic situation.

Edited to add: A few links which I thought were interesting – Said says Amina Hoax MacMaster-mind is Orientalist, Identity drag: Amina, appropriation and accountability and Men masquerading as lesbians online: allies or cowards?.

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One Comment

  1. Agreed, as always. M.x

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