I have nothing new to contribute on Anthony Weiner’s Twitter debacle. And, whether or not I consider it important enough to cover (read: not), we can count on Sarah Palin to ‘refudiate’ herself at least every few months. But thanks to the pervasive, horizontal nature of social media, you no longer need to be a politician to have a big media political scandal. For a prime example, I suggest tuning into the medium-sized brouhaha that has emerged in the wake of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” – an affair far more morally and politically significant than what a Brooklyn congressman decided to do with his digitally-rendered private parts.
On Sunday, leftish American graduate student and Middle East peace activist Tom McMaster admitted publicly to having fabricated the character of Amina Abdallah Araf al-Omari, a Syrian-American lesbian and sometimes-dissident blogging from Damascus. Beginning in February, ‘Amina’ wrote as “A Gay Girl in Damascus” – producing a total of 142 posts on topics as varied as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, growing up Muslim in America, and lesbian erotica. By all accounts, she was beautiful, erudite, and full of revolutionary-hero chutzpah.
Accordingly, the social media switchboards of the Arab Spring went wild when Rania O. Ismail, a poster claiming to be the blogger’s cousin, wrote June 6th that Amina had been forcefully abducted from her home by security forces loyal to the Assad regime. In an instant, Amina Araf was the face of the Syrian Revolution. The New York Times and CNN got at the story with gusto, and the State Department launched an investigation on the grounds of Araf’s American citizenship.
There are a fair number of good journalistic accounts of what happened next, as all the major outlets have been obligated to cover the Amina story well after having flubbed it the first time. But David Kenner’s piece at ForeignPolicy.com (my daily vice), “Straight Guy in Scotland“, is worth a special look. Reminding us that the case of Tom McMaster’s low-cost, low-quality trickery is more than the sum of its fraudulent parts, Kenner explains:
The story played perfectly into Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s effort to portray the domestic revolt as one guided by shadowy outsiders — indeed, Syria’s official government mouthpiece prominently featured a profile of MacMaster, claiming that the hoax “aimed at enhancing continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of (sic) kidnapping bloggers and activists.”
Detailing McMaster’s conscious attempt to play upon the small-l liberal sympathies of Americans and other Westerners, he continues:
Amina’s great appeal was her ability to transcend religious, ethnic, and political lines. “I am complex, I am many things; I am an Arab, I am Syrian, I am a woman, I am queer,” she wrote, in a post that paid homage to both famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and American founding father Patrick Henry.
In perhaps all the hope and naïveté requisite of a Middle East peace activist, McMaster failed to apprehend that he had taken his ecumenical fantasies of a complicated Syrian dissident too far. As a longtime hobbyist in both Middle Eastern society and alternative history, it probably took very little of him to move an imagined character in his head to the public forum of the activist blogosphere. After all – fortunately or unfortunately for him, this delusional tendency might have hardly mattered at all until a few years ago.
Without global internet connectivity, McMaster’s work would have lacked basic credibility. And without the real-time social media culture of link-sharing and micro-reporting, Amina’s story wouldn’t have been catchy enough to fuel protests in Syria and an overseas investigation by the State Department.
And without the idiotic blunders, McMaster could reasonably well have triggered a major development in the American approach to unrest in Syria – maybe the threat of force if Assad’s forces refused to unhand the American-born Araf – all on the premise of a fictitious character. Commentators have explained in great detail the classic ways in which new media are changing the playing field of international politics: as a means for people to organize and express freely beyond the reach of repressive governments, but also as a potential tool of surveillance and control by concerned state authorities.
A less-examined downside of new media has been lived out through our heroine, Amina: with good logistics and a resonant message, any individual with an agenda can be a wrench in the works of international politics. If the people making policy have any intention of keeping at it, I’d advise that they get to know social media for what it is: not just a platform for political crotch shots, but also a driver of real events.