No gay girl in Syria: Lessons for the social media community

Published: June 16, 2011
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People formed groups and web pages dedicated to the release of Amina Arraf.

Tom MacMaster, a mid-aged straight man who pretended to be “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” People formed groups and web pages dedicated to the release of Amina Arraf.

The mysterious “Gay Girl in Damascus,” who had been kidnapped, was recently revealed to be a hoax – not just a deception. The case has also been a great disappointment for blog readers and followers.

It turned out that the blog was not written by a gay girl in Damascus, but a 40-year-old American man, who is currently on vacation with his wife in Turkey. The pictures used on the web page belonged to a woman in London, who had nothing to do with the blog at all.

The news comes as a shock to the many who campaigned for Amina since June 6, the day news of her ‘kidnapping’ broke. People from different countries, on social networking sites voiced their concerns for Amina Arraf, the made-up Arab gay girl who wrote passionately about homosexual rights during protests in the Middle East.

International media covered Amina’s abduction story. People wrote letters to Syrian embassies in their countries for her release. Even the US State Department started an investigation of her abduction. People formed groups and web pages dedicated to her release.

Amina was not recovered, but who was found was Tom MacMaster, a middle-aged straight man pretending to be “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” who is studying for his Masters degree at Edinburgh University.

MacMaster wrote in an apology post appeared on his blog:

“So, I invented her. First, she was just a name, Amina Arraf. She commented on blogs and talkbacks on news-sites.”

It is not yet clear as to what his intentions were behind creating the blog: a conspiracy, a desire to participate in the movement, or sheer boredom.

Perils of internet identity theft

Using fake pictures, false names and creating bogus identities, are common on the internet. I am not sure if this comes under cyber crime, but using such techniques can put someone’s life in danger for sure. For instance, Tom used pictures of a London-based woman for his blog – she could have very well have been harmed by someone who believed she was Amina.

This situation is critical because no one bears the responsibility of such unethical wrong-doings. Even without bad intentions, someone can jeopardise another person’s life without knowing it. It should be the social media operators’ and users’ responsibility to make sure that these things do not prevail on their websites. Also, lawmakers need form laws to prevent such activities. Users should report fake IDs and display pictures to administrators of websites, and their IP addresses should be blocked on all social media links and websites.

Unfortunately, we still have not been able to develop limit children and teens online – how can we expect to affect the usage by adults?

On the internet it’s easy to hide under fake identities and float your weird ideologies, ideas – even if it is just to play with people’s sacred feelings. It also possible to start revolutions.

M Asghar Malik

M Asghar Malik

A masters graduate in business administration who currently manages Pearl Brokerage Private Limited and White Pearl Foundation. He blogs at sadaefaqeer.wordpress.com.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.