Bill Graber and Paula Brooks: open questions

I’ll publish a post with more details tomorrow morning at BlogHer.com, but for now, here are a few questions about Paula Brooks and Bill Graber. [ETA: the post is up: Lesbian Blogger Hoax: Warnings & Questions about Paula Brooks

white dude supposedly bill graber

1. Does Graber really have a wife, and if so what is her name? Is she Paula Brooks? Why hasn’t the “real” Paula come forward — or anyone who knows her? There is a real Paula from Fairborn, Ohio, at the same address as Graber, who appeared in court as a witness against him in a domestic violence case.

paula brooks or just some chick in a bar in Fairborn, Ohio?

2. Is the female, real-person Paula Brooks okay?

3. Is Graber potentially violent or dangerous right now? Is he harassing any of his former colleagues? Since research by Mel and Robin and others in comments here pointed to the Fairborn, Ohio court records, we can see that Graber has been convicted of stalking, domestic violence, assault, DUI, and other more minor offenses. I checked the Ohio state correctional system and didn’t see Graber or Brooks recorded there.

4. It may be worth looking into North Carolina (Outer Banks area) court records in case they did live there. Did anyone in the Outer Banks blogging community have strange correspondence with Paula Brooks? Did they know Graber in real life?

5. Who are these twin children Paula Brooks claimed were her babies? Did Graber steal some other blogger’s baby photos? Are they stock photos?

twin babies supposedly paula brooks' children

6. Are the other lezgetreal staffers, LInda S. Carbonell aka Linda LaVictoire, her daughter Brigitte LaVictoire, and others, sincere? (Adam from the Bilerico Project appears to think so, and he’s pretty awesome.)

7. Are Carbonell and La Victoire still working with Graber? What about the things they’ve said and done in the past — for example, Carbonell claiming to have close relatives in the government?

8. Who were those other people who spoke for Brooks at Bill Graber’s number, who said they were NBC staff – the younger man and older women?

9. Did Brooks or Graber actually have any contact with NBC, or the Olbermann or Maddow shows?

10. Was Graber in the military, as he claims?

11. How did Brooks know about inside political information before it broke — about various military/political figures? (http://juliephineas.com/?p=2599)

12. What is Graber’s real background and resume? Can we find other traces of his involvement with Middle Eastern politics? (Because it seems a little odd, especially given the contents of some private chats and emails people have showed me.)

13. What LGBT activists or writers has Graber/Brooks attacked in the past, and is there any pattern in those actions?

[ETA: Adam Polaski has just published part 4 in his series on this mess on The Bilerico Project: The Unreliable World of Bill Graber, which makes some good points about Graber’s inconsistent claims.]

Related posts:

Notes on sockpuppetry and astroturfing

Mischi says in comments,

The fallout from this whole Amina/Paula Brooks mess has really spooked me. I’m starting to wonder how many other individuals on my twitter or facebook feeds might be equally “unreal”.

So, I have to ask: are there any clues or patterns one should be particularly careful to pay attention to?

Also, what are the different kinds of motives that might compel someone to create sock puppets that have such a long and involved online presence (as both “amina” and “paula brooks” seemed to have). Some people here are suggesting they could be motivated by a desire to gather intelligence and/or disrupt activist organizations… but surely there must be other reasons? I mean, “Paula Brooks” wrote about surfing — what was the motive here? I’m just confused, and more than a little bewildered.

Anyway, it would be nice to get more insight into the world of sock puppets (a term which until a week ago I had never heard of, but now can’t stop thinking about!). Again, thanks!

Good questions Mischi – we could talk about that all day.

I think that members of long-standing organizations and communities often have developed the discernment to recognize likely instances of people who are not quite who they say they are, *and* the difficulty and offense of proving that. People who percieve themselves, also, as being in a less powerful situation or in danger have to hone their judgement.

Growing up in the 80s in Texas, I learned how to have good gaydar. People who are online a lot, who live out important parts of their lives socially online, have good sockdar.

Sockpuppets galore

Just as there’s no one motivation for masking or fictionalizing identity, there’s no one tip-off for who is real, and how far they’re trustable.

In most cases, I don’t care — and I don’t have to care — if a person is representing themselves with complete accuracy. Your situation might be different and you need to know you’re not being Facebook-friended by your abusive ex-boyfriend or some weird lying person from your past or an International Woman of Mystery or an FBI agent who just infiltrated your animal rights activist group.

Anonymity and pseudonymity can help people to have a public voice who might otherwise find it difficult to make their thoughts known. Not everyone can be out of the closet! So, while it’s legitimate to worry about who you’re talking to, ask yourself perhaps — does it matter? If it does, how would this conversation change?

If you care a lot about it, you could video chat with them briefly, or verify from someone you both know that there’s been a face to face meeting.

If I want to know, and I care, then I’ll just ask. It’s okay to be rude. If someone’s identity is a bit thin, and it’s reasonable to want to know who you’re speaking with, and they’re real, they should understand why you need to ask. If, on the other hand, they come up with reasons why it would be outrageous to ask, or know — maybe that should be unacceptable to you. If the person keeps missing your meetings and the excuses get more and more strange, that’s another clue!

I think we see here also in this entire fucked up mess that asking your friends for help is a great technique to triangulate on reality! Look at the great stuff in the comments . . . People are still working together to figure out who Graber is, and who he’s fooled, and what damage has been done. Because of that, more people will be protected against him in future. (And maybe he’ll get some kind of of real help, if he’s helpable.)

People have been asking me — what’s a sockpuppet? What’s astroturfing? Astroturfing is “fake grass roots” — many shallow fake identities created to give an illusion of popular support and interest. Astroturfing could be lots of voters from different IP addresses with different logins, gaming a voting system, or many people talking about how great a product is. Because of astroturfing’s volume and potential sophistication, it may be best detected by building good software tools. People who think a lot about botnets and spam-fighting are probably best equipped to talk about astroturfing — though as Mechanical Turk and other tools are used more often for astroturfing, this will get more difficult.

By “sockpuppets” I usually mean a persona of some depth. (Picture a person wearing a sockpuppet and having a conversation with it.) Wikipedia pages are often places where you can easily find a pattern of unsophisticated sockpuppetry. Several new accounts spring up to edit the same article. If they’re all from the same IP address, that’s a dead giveaway.

Sockpuppets are there to talk to each other. Writers make sockpuppet friends or enemies, drama-filled relationships, or conversation partners. Ms.Scribe would make a somewhat obvious sock to accuse herself of not being real. Someone else would then expose the attackers. Ms.Scribe would become more solid and look more more important. I’ve seen Wikipedia edit wars where several people follow a pattern of argument. Alice will propose something outrageous, Bob will come along to disagree by saying something even more outrageous, challenging Alice; Alice refutes Bob and then Bob admits Alice was right after all. They make puppeets to debate with about why the sky is green.

Plain Layne on the other hand looked to me like a “literary experiment” gone wrong over time. There I saw that the specific locality of Layne’s blog and how she described her life led to the other bloggers in her town to expect to run into her. In the earlier days of blogging, people didn’t think that they would be noticed, or found, or develop real life friendships. Some of us might know better these days. MacMaster didn’t.

The story of Victoria Bitter shows some very interesting patterns that remind me more of Paula Brooks and LezGetReal than of Amina’s hoax. Amy Player/Victoria Bitter/Andy Blake shifted identity several times in real life and went through a gender transition. They also defrauded people of money – and somehow, all this tragically led to a triple murder-suicide in May 2011. As the documenters of Victoria Bitter point out, Andy Blake is still around and is still – amazingly quickly after his friends’ deaths – playing out the same patterns of asking for money and engaging with communities that care about LGBT issues and about fiction.

It seems difficult for identity-performing people to resist *engaging with themselves*. I think they also get very tempted to engage directly with people who are beginning to get suspicious about them. It must be like taking a dare, or pushing one’s experiment to its logical extremes. How far can it go? Maybe it’s a power rush, like the feeling of power a fiction writer gets as they move their characters around inside a story. The sense of psychopathy people talk about when they have been involved with sockpuppets may relate to this feeling of power and manipulation.

But I remember the story being more complex as I think of Plain Layne. She would reach a crisis in her life, or would be challenged by a commenter who’d say she couldn’t be who she says. And I’d intervene and comment myself, saying, “But she *could* have had crazy great sex on her first date because…” or “Well, you are all saying she shouldn’t take in her teenage cousin’s baby — but I’d admire her if she did” and then what I predicted *would happen*. Layne’s author would take suggestions or cues from commenters, and would play them out. We all had, now and then, the pleasure of feeling we were right in our advice, or our predictions of how Layne would feel about her choices and why.

With fictional personas of less well established boundaries, I think that kind of thing can have feel like talking with a person who’s schizophrenic and who incorporates anything you might mention into their fantastic ramblings. It feels *off*. There can be a pattern of boundary violation. Some sockpuppet hoaxers, like Bill Graber, seem to have incredibly bad boundaries right from the start. I mean, I don’t have the most fabulous boundaries either, and not a lot of instinct to stay away from drama, or I wouldn’t have kept on poking into this entire mess — but I’m actually nice, and exist, and have a life, and all that.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about science fiction fandom and its online communities. Fans who write transformative works have been using pseudonyms, and developing chains of trust and reputation based on those pseudonyms, for a long time. In other words, if you make vids about characters who are owned by someone else, and build up your reputation with that as your art, you have good reason to hide your identity, because you don’t want to be sued.

For sockpuppet detection, it’s important to document the process of unravelling a hoax — the red flags, dead ends, and all the threads and evidence. Investigators screengrab and archive chats and photos or copy entire websites, which might turn out to be crucial traces of a sockpuppetry nexus or a Very Complex Internet Drama — before the perpetrator or a community moderator deletes the evidence. They’re archiving events and documenting extended public conversations. That’s a skill and a way of thinking that’s still evolving very quickly.

You can also look at people’s IP addresses, times they come online and go offline, and so on.

If you’ve been in activist groups of any kind it seems fairly usual for someone to point a finger at someone else who is a bit disruptive and accuse them of being an infiltrator. That can be a destructive process in itself, unfortunately.

While there do seem to be various patterns of behavior I think part of the sockdar we have at our disposal – especially as sophisticated readers – is about the use of language, being in the same register of formality, and speaking the same way. There are also differences in what sites a persona joins. A skilled hoaxer can fake those things of course! I’d like to know if other people notice particular things that affect their judgement of a person’s real-life existence or their sincerity?

I’ve got to stop writing for the day [ETA: I wrote this 8 hours ago and thought I posted it, but it was still in draft!] but I’d love to hear what others have to say on this topic. There is plenty to say as well about literary hoaxes (going back to JT Leroy, Nasidjj, Margaret Jones/Peggy Seltzer, and so many others). How do you smell a rat? Have there been situations where you have figured out someone’s real or not real?

[Also ETA to add, I am still researching and thinking about who the hell Bill Graber is, but needed to stop and write this, partly because it is what everyone calling to interview me is asking. Will post tomorrow about Graber and so on. Who the hell is Graber? Is that really his name? Does he have some overall agenda? Is he just independently kind of . . . not sane, having maintained an alternate identity for years and then totally melting down? I don’t buy the theory that he’s a secret agent of a government.. but it’s more plausible that he could be a disrupting agent of conservative/anti-gay organizations.]

Related posts:

Guest post from Ben Rosenbaum

Benjamin Rosenbaum is a science fiction writer. I know him (in person!) from the world’s largest feminst science fiction convention, WisCon. Here’s a guest post from Ben about the Amina hoax, identity, power and privilege, and sf writer James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon.

A funny note: Ben’s comments in the Amina posts under his email address, “plausiblefabulist@gmail.com”, sparked some very alarmed emails to me from other commenters!

—-

I still like a lot of Amina wrote and see no reason not to continue to like it. I liked the thing about “Der Judenstaat and Al Awda”, I liked “Still Sunni”. The author, as Roland Barthes said, is dead. I can be enraged at Tom MacMaster and still find Amina an attractive hero. I like Matilda, even though Roald Dahl was apparently a complete jerk.

What was attractive about Amina is that she was articulate and interesting and knowledgeable, and also that she was personally courageous and speaking from earned experience. If some things felt a little off about her reports, one was inclined to forgive them — she was speaking from her own experience, after all, and she was under a lot of stress.

The hoax does not mean that the opinions were any less articulate. It does however unravel the package of articulateness, integrity, courage, and personal knowledge, replacing it with a somewhat less appetizing cocktail of articulateness, deceit, cowardice and academic knowledge.

It is correct that we judge opinions based on where they are coming from. This is not an error, or an unfortunate bias. We cannot check every detail of what we hear ourselves, so when we hear an opinion, we are entitled to ask: how does this person know? We very often have to go with gut feeling, with trust. In a constrained academic context we can check footnotes, we can replace some personal trust with institutional trust, but it’s essentially the same process.

Part (granted, quite a small part compared to real people’s lives put in danger) of the tragedy here is that Amina would have made a brilliant character in a novel. Minal is right about where
it’s full of Fail
— but if MacMaster had been building true alliances with real queer Arabs on the basis of honesty, all those years, they could have called him on those things; all the moments of Orientalist fail and male-gaze squick could have been first-draft problems. That that novel will never be written is not because of a lack of talent; it is because of a lack of courage and humility.

(I don’t, by the way, say that sneeringly. Indeed, I say it with a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” — as a white guy, I can well understand the temptation of stolen authority. Maybe I’m projecting here, but in the Washington Post interview MacMaster says, “the biggest reason [for inventing Amina] was that I found that when I argued, debated and made points that I knew to be factually sound on issues relating to Middle East by myself, I got pushback. I was prevented from [saying] what I was trying to say. I created a relatively simple character, so when I commented on blogs or in a discussion online, it [was] not going to be about me.” My theory? I suspect he wasn’t prevented from saying what he was trying to say at all — he was just called on it. Privilege made that feel like suffocation. The pushback — which was actually a gift, a way in, a way to make allies, to come to understand — felt intolerable. And he did care passionately about the issues. He wanted to be heard. Stolen authority felt so natural, so right, that it was addictive. That’s just my theory. But it gives me a lot of compassion for MacMaster. People have been calling him a sociopath, and in some ways that is an accurate operational description of the way he carried on a lot of these relationships. But I don’t think he’s a sociopath in the technical sense.

Character is built of habits, and choices have a way of snowballing. This is not to excuse the choices he made; he knew full well what he was doing. He could have stopped any time, before being caught. He chose the easy way, the cheat, the stolen rush, and kept on choosing it.)

But what about the general case? Should people have a right to pretend-blog as a compelling-but-fake persona?

I don’t think there’s necessarily a hard-and-fast rule. Jackie Monkiewicz brought up the case of James Tiptree, Jr., who also carried on whole correspondences and friendships in a persona. One salient difference is that when Alice Sheldon revealed herself as the true Tiptree many of her friends were amused, or even joyful — not rageful and betrayed at all. Le Guin wrote “oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable — Wie geht’s, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! […] I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic, and ETHICAL, a put on.”

I can think of some reasons why the reaction differed. For one thing, power relations are asymmetrical, and pretending to be in a more privileged position than you are does not create the same kind of infiltration, false authority, false protection, that pretending to be in a less powerful position does. For another thing, Tiptree could say, when she came out, “everything else was true”. She really had been in the army, in the intelligence services, been a big game hunter; it was all HER, just a male version of her (this may also, for all I know, be true of “Paula Brooks” — it’s definitely not true of Tom/Amina). But these reasons may not be the full story. Part of the deal is simply that if you can pull things off, you can pull them off; you just can’t be disingenuous that you’re taking a risk. Sometimes you can kiss people out of the blue and it will work out well, because you have read the situation right. Other times it will work out very, very badly. In those latter times you are not less at fault because you didn’t understand.

I never assumed Amina was exactly who she said she was; I certainly hoped she was disguising and obfuscating crucial details. When it first became clear that it was a hoax, I imagined that perhaps the author was really an alternate Amina — a real Syrian-American lesbian blogger who was not in Syria, who was playing out a fantasy out what would have been, if she had stayed. That still would have been dangerous and irresponsible, she would have been putting people at risk and it would have been immature… but at the end of it I would have been able to read those entries as hers, and liked them as hers, instead of liking them as the entries of a fictional character.

I think it would be fine for a blog persona to be false, to be a hoax, if the effect of the hoax was neutral or just. The Sokal hoax is an example of a just hoax. It harmed no one and cleverly exposed sloth and timidity. A neutral hoax would be if it turned out that, I don’t know, say, Linus Torvalds was an Arab woman. So what? We’d still have Linux. His nationality isn’t relevant. We don’t believe in Linux, and trust it, and take it seriously because of personal authority based in its Finnishness.

The thing is, when you’re perpetrating a hoax, plan for the discovery. Plan to be outed, because if the average person on the internet is getting more
gullible (which I doubt, but whatever), the least gullible people, the Snopeses and Liz Henrys, are getting more powerful, more networked, and faster at exposing you. If you are doing a hoax, know that you will get caught, and — as in the Sokal example — make getting caught the punch line, make it part of your point. Make it so you can hold your head up high when you do get caught, because the hoaxiness was part of what you were really saying all along.

Benjamin Rosenbaum http://www.benjaminrosenbaum.com

Related posts:

Chasing Amina

Over the past few days in speaking with Ali and Ben from Electronic Intifada, we shared information, links and theories about the blogger behind Amina of Gay Girl in Damascus. Ben and Ali have now posted some of the evidence collected. The Amina blogger is connected strongly with Thomas (Tom) J MacMaster and Britta Froelicher, formerly from Georgia, now living in Scotland.

The blogger behind Amina has been exchanging long emails with me for the last few days, and also shows up as several of the people commenting on the post below, Painful doubts about Amina. I continued email contact out of concern for the person behind the hoax. I feel fairly sure I was speaking with Tom MacMaster.

A couple of days ago I realized LezGetReal.com editor Paula Brooks, who had worked with Amina, was being interviewed by mainstream media. Brooks had not communicated by voice to the reporters — only over email or chat. Brooks’ online presence looked a bit thin. Ben and Ali tried to verify any of the facts of her education and employment, and could not find evidence of Paula Brooks’ existence. I spoke with people who were close to Brooks and should have met her — but who had never seen her. I have no direct evidence that Brooks is Tom MacMaster, but circumstantial evidence shows it is a good avenue for research. If Brooks is *another distinct hoaxer*, that will be very odd, and will need more investigation.

I’d like to warn people who have been in contact with Amina — and with Paula Brooks — to be skeptical about others they know online who they have not met in person.

Journalists covering a story about a hoax should be careful to verify the existence of their sources.

I have compassion for the mental and emotional state of the Amina hoaxer. But the pattern that the person shows in their engagement with others is very disturbing.

Many people 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. None of those, however, are excuses for deception and manipulative behavior.

In my talk at SXSWi on “fiction and hoax” bloggers, I suggested that intelligence agencies should begin to hire or should be hiring creative writers with technical proficiency, who can run deep cover online “agents” to establish a credible online footprint.

Perhaps that has come to pass, but in the case of Amina, perhaps the writer behind Gay Girl in Damascus is acting from their own motivations, exploring gender identity and relationships or perhaps partly from loving the feeling of being embedded into Internet drama and weaving believable fiction. The person may be mentally ill in some way. Their feeling of being unsafe may have led them into creating alter egos who bravely face danger.

Yet in leaving smokescreens of lies, the shells of Amina and Rania, AmandaLynn and others I could name, the hoaxer hasn’t just hurt the people who thought they were close to Amina. They wasted the time of a lot of activists, human rights workers, journalists, and people concerned about Syrian politics. By their lies, they harmed the fabric of social trust. Lies and hoaxes do damage to communities. The hoaxer did political damage.

I tried to persuade the Amina-blogger, who was emailing me, to step forward and make a public statement on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, at the least to assure readers that she was not in police custody. The writer’s response was to continue creating new layers of deceit. We discussed postmodern constructions of identity and gender issues for several days. Meanwhile I continued digging into the backgrounds of the online identities connected with Amina, working with Ali, Ben, and keeping in touch with others working on the same story.

This weekend, I haven’t been able to do any research or keep up with the comments on this blog, as I’ve been mostly offline at the Foo Camp conference in Sebastopol. I’m very glad that Ali and Ben (as well as Andy Carvin and Jillian York) continued research and put together such a careful explanation of their reasoning and of the evidence. I hope other people who have more resources at their disposal can bring the truth to light, and that the hoaxer gets a healthier kind of attention, support and help in their real life identity.

Note: I work for BlogHer and you can verify my identity with my employer, or with Danny O’Brien from the Committee to Protect Journalists. There are also records and videos of my public speaking appearances at technical conferences, so for anyone wondering if I am a real person: yes I am.

Related posts:

Painful doubts about Amina

This morning I woke up to reports that Amina Abdalla, aka Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, who blogs on Gay Girl in Damascus had been detained in Syria. Her cousin posted to give the details, and people were twittering and blogging about the situation, there was a Facebook page and a #freeamina hashtag and people talking about what to do as activists to pressure for her release. At work in the morning, I let people at BlogHer know, since we featured her post some months ago, My Father, the Hero. My coworkers were very concerned, Heather Clisby posted about Amina’s situation, and our entire community of women bloggers geared up to support her. I wrote to one of my senators and signed some online petitions in her support, and sent out messages to everyone I know to try to help her.

Over the course of the day as I tracked the stories about Amina I noticed that all the articles sourced her blog, and then her other blog from 2007. I started looking for traces of her elsewhere. She has a Facebook page, but not a lot of other presence. It looked to me like her 2007 blog was a few chapters of experimentation with a memoir or a novel. Then she abandoned that and brought it back in mid-February on a new site. Not uncommon. But I started having doubts based on some of her patterns of talking about personas and fiction. Back when people were talking about My Father, the Hero, I heard people doubting Amina’s existence simply based on her being an out lesbian in Damascus. I argued against that doubt and would not doubt someone based on their identity. But now began to feel differently.

As the afternoon wore on I felt that (even sluggish as it is) mainstream media should by now have found people who were personal friends, family, fellow students or co-workers of Amina from her time in the U.S. if not contacts in Syria. Again.. a day went by and all the sources and quotes were from two blogs by the same person, about that person. Interviews surfaced but they were all interviews by email. Then as I questioned things on my blogs and on twitter, in some phone calls to activists and journalists, I saw that Amina’s friend Sandra Bagaria in Montreal was twittering about her and was beginning to give interviews. She was reported as close friend, girlfriend, and partner in different sources. Sandra Bagaria, unlike Amina, had a clear presence on the web. That put my fears partly to rest. But I wondered a bit about Bagaria’s aliases: her twitter description read: “aka Marjane, aka Lisbeth and a Syrian lover.” Really… Hmm.

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.

But it now turns out that Bagaria has never met Amina in person. They had an online relationship. As I see it, this could indicate various possibilities:

– Amina is as she appears to be, a talented writer living in Syria; perhaps with a different name and with the names of her family members obscured.

– Amina is someone else entirely in Syria.

– Amina is someone else; anything goes. Amina could be Odin Soli for all I know. In fact, wouldn’t it fit all too neatly?

– Amina is Sandra Bagaria.

In 2007 I gave a talk at SXSWi on Fictional Blogging. I talked about astroturfing, sockpuppets, deep cover established online over time, and hoax bloggers who turned out to be not what they seemed. My own blogging community in around 2003 included a charismatic blogger named Plain Layne. Her life as a bisexual young woman was full of drama; she was goodhearted, generous, incredibly engaging, a fabulous writer, and would sometimes get herself into situations that would just make you stay awake at night worrying about her life, her cousin who had a baby, her upcoming dates, who she was going to sleep with… it was quite incredible. I’m sure many bloggers and blog readers have gone through this cycle of becoming fascinated with another person’s life through their textual output. Plain Layne had fans. When she wrote about being a rape survivor, many of us emailed and IM-ed her to offer long nights of support, or told our painful stories of trauma or abuse so she’d know she wasn’t alone.

Well… to make a long story short Plain Layne turned out to be this middle aged guy named Odin Soli who had also won blog awards years before as Acanit, a young lesbian Muslim girl with a Jewish girlfriend. Despite watching many of my close (in person and online) friends feel that their basic trust in humanity was damaged from this hoax, I invited Odin to come speak with me at SXSWi about blogging under a persona and how his “experimental fiction” had gone too far. We had a fantastic public discussion that stretched (at the audience’s request) an hour past our allotted panel time. I liked Odin a lot. He was fun to be around, as well as being a good writer and superb online performer of identity. His Layne stories evolved later into a novel, The Mexican Year… which by the way were about a Muslim woman. If you read all three of these writing projects, you may see some stylistic and thematic similarities with Amina. I believed in Amina, up till the spark of doubt I began feeling this afternoon. But… I believed hard in Layne too.

odin soli

One of the high points of the discussion at SXSWi was talking with Ethan Zuckerman about political and government uses of “fictional” blogging. It would certainly be easy to imagine disinformation campaigns — say, a refugee camp blogger who reported on conditions in some way that was false and aimed at discrediting a political movement or government either because they were believed, or because they were revealed as fakes. What we thought was that if we could imagine it, someone else had probably already thought of it and was doing it.

In this case, how could I tell from this distance? I hope you can see why my spidey sense went off for Amina. I don’t disbelieve in her becuase she’s a great writer with a sense of drama and rhetoric, or because of her sexual orientation or her activism. For example, I don’t for a second doubt the existence of Riverbend, who blogged so eloquently and for so long from Baghdad and then fled to Syria with her family. But I start to really, really, want some trustable and deep sources for Amina. How can an activist whose life is in danger provide that credibility? It’s a very hard question. There have been good experiments done of inventing credible people — inserting them into conferences by having them tweet a lot and write about what they’re doing, then have them friend everyone they “met” at the conference — 9 times out of 10 I would friend that person back even if I couldn’t remember meeting them. Then I’d “know” them on Facebook and Twitter and in the blog world, and they’d be friends with lots of my real life friends. I would not at all be surprised if some of my social media contacts were complicated fictional creations — either literary experiments, or politically motivated cyber-infiltrators.

Like I said, not only was I imagining how to do this well back in 2005 or so, other much more powerful — or much more creative and weird — people than me were likely imagining it — and doing it. We saw with the HBGary case that there is software to manage a stack of complicated online personas and their social media presences and keep their backgrounds and relationships straight. Of course. Right?

At one point in 2008, I busted an entire fake astroturf political community, PumaPAC. That was fun.

In this situation, if I were Sandra Bagaria, and if I weren’t Sandra/Amina, I’d be taking my computer to a friendly hackerspace and get an expert vouched for by the community there to look at my email headers and whatever other records of contact I had with Amina. From that it should be possible to tell something of her location. I would believe a fair bit of sophistication in hiding that location and identity is realistic of course. But it might not hold up to scrutiny.

Andy Carvin has been twittering all afternoon trying to find someone who has met Amina in person and has not succeeded.

If this is a hoax, I feel for everyone involved whose emotions were brought to a pitch and who stepped up to try and support Amina Araf. It also must be really infuriating for the LGBT people actually in Syria and for many other activists and bloggers who have been detained for their online writing.

If I’m wrong then I am being very rude to Amina and I am terribly sorry for that. But, I feel that it’s incredibly important to maintain some skepticism when sources are so thin.

Please change my mind with evidence and good sources. On the other hand, I’d like it if Amina didn’t exist, because then she wouldn’t be in jail and in danger, though other people are who need our support.

Update: Andy Carvin just posted with his thoughts. He is leaning towards believing that Amina is real, but doesn’t know a lot of people in person and lives her social life online. That is plausible, and I’m sure we’ll find out more over the next couple of days. Someone must have known her in Atlanta, for example… Meanwhile, I hope she is safe.

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