In 1993, Peter Steiner penned an oft-reproduced cartoon for The New Yorker that has proven to be remarkably prescient time and time again. In it, two dogs sit by a computer and one, turning to the other, explains, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Meet the dog of the hour: Tom MacMaster , a 40-year-old white, male graduate student living in Georgia who, for four months now, has been masquerading as Amina Abdallah Arraf, the supposedly Syrian American author of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog. Arraf/MacMaster has been posting about “her” supposedly unique experiences as a lesbian taking part in Syria’s youth uprising. The blog gained hundreds (maybe thousands) of regular followers and a great deal of media attention, so last week’s post explaining that Arraf had been detained by the Syrian government understandably sparked quite a bit of concern. According to The Independent and other sources, several Syrian bloggers and activists started investigations into Arraf’s disappearance. You can imagine, then, the dismay, shock, and disillusionment that followed when, last Sunday, the true author of the blog revealed himself and apologized. To add insult to injury, Paula Brooks, editor of the blog Lez Get Real (who, full disclosure, I corresponded with in passing in 2008, when both our blogs were just getting started), admitted a day after MacMaster that “she” is actually a 58-year-old heterosexual, male Air Force veteran named Bill Graber.
MacMaster claims that A Gay Girl in Damascus was just a writing exercise that got out of hand. Graber also says that he didn’t think people would “take [him] seriously” about the issues he was writing about if they knew he was a white male. Both responses, defensiveness couched in apology, are patently absurd. And yet, there’s another, less recognized reason MacMaster’s actions are so troubling: They were exploitative—of identities and of the internet.
Exploitation may seem a rather harsh verdict, but it’s nevertheless an apt one. MacMaster claims that, even though Arraf was fake, he still “created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.” And, indeed, it’s so easy to lie on the internet that the choice to do so feels almost logical. If you don’t think anyone will care about what you have to say, why not become someone else whose voice will lend your ideas more credibility? But that choice, put simply, is a deplorable one for the assumptions and presumptions that go along with it. MacMaster, for instance, evinces a staggering illusion of grandeur in which he, as a Western male, feels that he has as much (or more) right to be a voice for Syrians than they themselves. This kind of self-righteous ventriloquism extends far beyond mere political commentary. He used Arraf’s identity to develop online friendships with many Syrian activists and to form a romantic attachment over Facebook with a Canadian woman, using his wife’s photos as bait. In a stunning display of chutzpah, MacMaster even told a Washington Post reporter investigating him a few days before his cover was blown, “Look, if I was the genius who had pulled this off, I would say, ‘Yeah,’ and write a book.”
While Bill Graber’s deception is a bit less sinister (though no less unethical), it reveals the same kind of exploitative behavior. Through their digital legerdemain, MacMaster and Graber both violated readers on both personal and political levels, developing bonds with women who believed they were safe in the presence of another woman and becoming trusted voices for the communities they infiltrated. Not to mention that the idea of middle-aged men masquerading as lesbians has a distinctly and distastefully prurient edge.
Basically, by taking on the personae of lesbian bloggers, what MacMaster and Graber were saying is this: “I am a white male and, as such, privileged by American society in almost every way. There is, however, one way in which I am not privileged; I don’t have the right to speak for minorities, and that makes me sad. Luckily for me, I’ve found a way that I can simultaneously enjoy all the privileges of being a white American male and all the media attention of being a disenfranchised political/sexual minority.”
MacMaster and Graber wanted their fifteen minutes of fame, and they became exactly who the media needed them to be to get it—lying and then basking in the attention. In the end, MacMaster and Graber’s exploitative behavior has made it even more difficult to trust diverse voices on the internet, inviting greater scrutiny for real people who are already disenfranchised in some way and who are trying to make their voices heard. Does a lesbian blogger in Syria writing about the protests sound too good to be true? Well, now no similar voice will be trusted. And that’s a tragedy.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.