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 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.