Fake Lesbians and Krusty the Clown close
I want to start this by saying that I won’t even pretend to understand the effect that the hoax blogger purporting to be a gay woman in Syria has had on people’s struggles in that country. So my intention isn’t really to comment on the specifics of what happened, but instead to consider more broadly what it illustrates about the validity of content online.
When it was revealed that a blogger claiming to be a gay woman in Syria called ‘Amina’ was, in fact, a 40 year old US man living in Scotland called Tom, people were shocked.
The site that uncovered the hoax blogger is called LezGetReal.com but a few days after the revelation it was discovered that one of LezGetReal’s editors, “Paula Brooks” was not who she said she was either. In fact 'she' was 58 year old Bill Graber. He said he posed as a gay woman because nobody would take him seriously as a straight man. No shit, Sherlock! Somehow Amina's heady mixture of sex, politics and an old fashioned triumph over adversity seemed less engaging when you learn it was nothing but the fantasy of a middle aged man.
When I read this I was reminded of an episode of the Simpsons. Krusty the Clown decides to call a Sex Chat Line. When he gets through it turns out that he is in the company of Apu, the Mini-Mart store owner and two other guys. The conversation goes like this:
Krusty: Ooh! Sex Chat! (dials)
Female voice: You've reached the Party Line! In a moment, you'll be connected to a hot party, with some of the world's most beautiful women! Now, let's join the party!
Man 1: Hello?
Man 2: Hello?
Apu: Are there any women here?
Apu: Are you a beautiful woman?
Krusty: Do I sound like a beautiful woman?
Apu: This is not as hot a party as I anticipated.
(listen to it here )
Since then both hoaxers have been at pains to apologise and explain that their intentions were noble, but as one activist in Syria pointed out “I could have put myself in grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure.”
But, the subject of the hoax aside, it does pose quite an interesting point about the validity of content we read online. We assume that when a newspaper or TV show reports something they will have checked their facts as far as they can and will be clear about what is fact and what is fiction (and what is a reconstruction), but can we assume the same is true online?
Given the ability to be anonymous and without any need for editorial integrity, we have no idea whether what we are reading is accurate or indeed written by the people who we think are writing it. So often (and I’ve done it myself) we use Wikipedia as a source, believing that there are so many people out there scrutinising this stuff that it’s bound to be true, but you only have to look at the history of a Wikipedia page to see how many malicious changes get uploaded. You just have to hope that when you read it, it's a corrected version.
And is it ever OK to lie online and say you’re someone you aren’t? How many celebrities and politicians pay other people to write on their behalf? Is that mis-leading, or is it something we should just expect? From people uploading false information about themselves on a dating site to companies posing as unbiased members of the public defending or promoting their own products, this looks like a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.