There was a time not so very long ago when blogging and journalism were two completely different things. Many, if not most bloggers did not publish under their own names and mainstream journalists sniffed their disapproval. But as most journalists now write as much if not far more for the Internet than print, the idea that blogging is somehow antithetical to journalism is a distinctly antique notion.
It is in this context of a journalistic world in which constant online news updates and accompanying commentary is a given that we must view the revelation this weekend that a popular Middle East blog was a hoax. The blog, which went under the name “Gay Girl in Damascus,” purported to be the musings of a Syrian-American lesbian who was a critic of the Assad regime. Interest in the blog went up in recent months as unrest in Syria made the commentary from this seemingly fearless writer all the more fascinating.
But, as we learned this weekend, it was all a hoax. The “gay girl” turned out to be one Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American graduate student living in Scotland who was known in Palestinian and anti-Israel activist circles. Like many another con artist, MacMaster tripped himself up by getting carried away by his own fiction. When he wrote last week that the Syrian authorities had arrested his heroine, it became a subject of international concern and the ensuing hubbub led inevitably to the truth.
This is causing understandable consternation among those who followed the blog. In his defense, MacMaster says he created the “gay girl” in order to give a voice to a marginalized group and to hone his fiction writing skills. There are those who will argue that the Internet lends itself to such deceptions and there may be some truth in that although literary and journalistic hoaxes have been around for centuries before bloggers came on the scene. It will also be pointed out that if there really was such a person blogging in Damascus they would have no choice but to do anonymously. But readers who take internet reporting about current events on faith, as one must with anonymous blogs, do so at their own risk.
The “gay girl” hoax is not the first nor will it be the last example of people who claim that their good intentions trump any notion of truth or ethics. Whatever good MacMaster thought he was doing for the oppressed people of Syria was undone by the fact that the regime can now trumpet the fact that this supposedly fearless opponent of the Assads was a fraud.
This incident makes it all the more important for consumers of news and opinion on the web to know more about the sites they are reading. In the end, there is no substitute for transparency. Blogs and websites that operate without it are a standing invitation to fraud of one sort or another.