14 Jun 2011

Fake blogger is latest ‘liberal hoax’ with a good cause

Following the revelation that the lesbian Syrian blogger “damascusgaygirl” was a man living in Scotland, Samira Ahmed examines the history of the hoax with a purpose.

A veiled woman takes part in a protest calling on Syria's President Bashar Assad to step down, in front of the United Nations headquarters in Amman (Getty)

The liberal hoax for a “good cause” has a long tradition. Most bizarre in Tom MacMaster’s defence of his long and increasingly reported fake identity as Amina Arraf, an imprisoned lesbian Syrian blogger, was his claim that he was challenging Western “orientalist” attitudes towards Middle Eastern women.

On his “damascusgaygirl” website, where he admitted the hoax on 12 June, MacMaster wrote: “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground.”

It’s a defence that has been used for decades by those who wrote fake Holocaust memoirs, which have been turning up since the 1960s. One of the most significant was “Fragments” from 1995. It turned out Binjamin Wilkomirski, was not a Polish Jewish child but a Swiss journalist, Bruno Doessekker, who for some years posed as a Holocaust survivor till the truth was discovered. When it was, a literary argument blew up about whether his memoir still told an essential truth.

And of course such memoirs take longer to uncover as hoaxes. As Sociology professsor Frank Furedi once put: “The notion that a victim’s version of events should not be questioned conveys the idea that they have some privileged access to the truth.”

No one disputes the importance of fictionalising or simplifying where necessary in an authentic memoir. “If This Is a Man” by Primo Levi, the Italian chemist who survived Auschwitz, was started in January 1946. Every day he would write down memories on scraps of paper as they came to him.

If there is a a comparable scandal to Macmaster’s, it’s probably Alex Haley’s novel “Roots” (1976) and TV miniseries, which helped transformed American attitudes to its legacy of slavery and had a huge impact on black people round the world.

The American writer claimed to have traced his real ancestors back to Kunte Kinte – brought from Africa and even to have found relatives in Gambia. Haley was successfully sued for plagiarism by Harold Courlander for lifting passages from his earlier novel “The African” (1967). And Harvard University professor, Dr Henry Louis Gates Jr admitted in 1998: “Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. ‘Roots’ is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone’s imagination.”

Perhaps the strangest thing about hoax memoirs/blogs is that fiction such as George Orwell’s “1984” has often done more to expose totalitarian regimes. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day In the life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) was clearly based on real knowledge of the Soviet gulags, but didn’t claim to be a memoir.

What’s most worrying about Macmaster’s fake blog is that it could only work by masquerading as documentary fact. He attempted to run with breaking news events at a time when social media has enabled a mass public to follow every development as it’s uploaded. It’s hard to see how he wouldn’t have been caught out sooner rather than later. There is probably a tale about how, in the privacy of one’s home, he was seduced by the attention into embellishing his creation.

MacMaster’s caused outrage among bloggers, particularly given the real risks some Middle Eastern bloggers are taking to get out news despite threats from the authorities. What’s so distressing about the nature of his hoax is that it was about Syria, where the regime’s clampdown on foreign journalists has left the outside world desperate for eyewitness accounts.

Perhaps reassuringly for journalists working for recognised news organisations, though, the hoax has also revealed the importance of basic fact checking and authentication. Refugees at the Turkish border are revealing much about their treatment in the hands of the Syrian security forces. Nothing, though, removes the nasty feeling among those who were following Amina’s posts that their real concern was exploited by a man who still insists he was telling some kind of truth.