Monday, June 13, 2011

What twisted webs we weave

In the end all you have is your name and your credibility. Once you've besmirched those two things, you have nothing left.

The internet, the blogosphere, the 24-hour news cycle and satellite and cable television have made it easier to obtain information -- but they've also made it easier deceive the public.

Thanks to the miracles of the internet, I was able to time the release of blog posts while I was on Edisto Island in South Carolina last week. Not knowing when I'd get the chance to update the blog I wrote a week's worth of pieces in the days before we set out.

Tom MacMaster, a 40-year old American student studying in Scotland, used the internet to perpetuate a hoax. I'm sure it didn't start out that way. He created an online persona that he used to comment on other blogs about the situation in the Middle East. This online persona, in his words, then took on a life of its own. He developed a back story of a half-American, half-Syrian lesbian struggling to come to grips with culture, religion and sex.

First came a Facebook page then came the blog. Then it all snowballed.

Journalists, academics, activists and others began following the saga of Amina Arraf. No one questioned whether she was a real person. No one questioned whether the events depicted in the blog even occurred. I mean, it's the Internet -- why wouldn't it be true?

Then Ms. Arraf was tossed in the clink. An online campaign protesting her arrest and demanding her release was born. Newspapers, both print and on-line, ran articles about her detention.Then someone decided to do a little fact-checking.

The gig was soon up.

Was Mr. MacMaster right or wrong? I don't know. He "misled" people who followed his tale of Amina online. But how does that differ from any work of fiction you pick off the shelf or any television drama you sit down to watch? He never asked for money. He never asked for anything. He created a story that people followed because they found it interesting.

Now Mr. MacMaster is a pariah. There are a lot of journalists and other so-called experts who have egg on their faces because they took what they read on the internet as the truth. Mr. MacMaster has apologized for the hoax -- my guess is he's more sorry he got "caught" than he is for creating the story.

Has he harmed the cause of those seeking change in the Middle East? Does this mean that journalists might begin checking their facts before publishing stories? Will we begin taking what we see on the internet with a healthy grain of salt?

In the meantime, Mr. MacMaster walks away with both his name and credibility sullied.

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