No doubt you have, by now, caught the denouement to the mystery of the missing Gay Girl In Damascus. If not, this David Kenner article in Foreign Policy will catch you to speed. Spoiler: She’s neither gay, female, nor Syrian.

More importantly, the article spells out some of the implications the Gay Girl episode may have for viewing current events through the lens of digital and social media. That the anonymity of the internet allows us to be duped by imposters like MacMaster is just the beginning. As Kenner points out, the revelation that our sources of information are, shall we say, dubious can play directly into the hands of despots like Bashar al-Assad. We’re vulnerable precisely because the wrong voices will tell us the story we want to hear. In MacMaster’s case, that was all too easy, since the story he was telling was apparently the story that he, as someone enamored with Syria and sympathetic to the revolutionaries there, also wanted to hear. In other words, he fooled the rest of us by simply dreaming too loudly and too convincingly.

In some regards, what MacMaster did was no different from the usual hijinks that take place every day on the internet. Here, there are no sure identities unless you provide them. Instead, we’re each crafting a persona, or several persona. At one point, that seemed like an ominous development, but a recent article by Tess Lynch (a likely name) at The Morning News demonstrates, we’re growing increasingly comfortable with the duality of “online” and “IRL.” Consider:

A few months ago, a friend was asked out on a date by a man whose name yielded no recognizable Google match; though surely it’s possible to exist actually without existing virtually, my first thought was, Hey, that guy’s not real. And you know what? He wasn’t. Well, he was real, but he wasn’t who he said he was, and in life (and particularly on dates) this is generally looked down upon. In this case, the heartless algorithm that takes note of what you do, who you are, and where you live had worked in our favor (my friend passed on a second date). That is not always so, and whether the algorithm punishes or rewards us is unpredictable…

It’s telling that the litmus test for existence in this case is Google. Until recently, the litmus test for the existence of Amina was also her presence on the Web. And, unfortunately, that’s to be expected.

Kenner’s list seems to suggest that, with a little more diligence and skepticism, competent journalists should be able to see through such machinations. It’s almost as though he hopes to preserve the possibility of using that sort of digital outlet as the raw material for journalism.

Yet, the elements of the Gay Girl story that made it so appealing to the press and public are the very elements that make it difficult to square with normal journalistic standards. Amina’s story was appealing precisely because there were so many odds against a story like that making it out into the public eye. Underlying any suggestion that digital and social media open the world up to us in ways previously defied by despotic political systems is the premise that those stories must come to us illicitly. We are, then, by nature, looking for stories that are practically impossible to source accurately and from a distance, and we’re willing to give them credence in part because we’ve attuned ourselves to the idea that the internet makes it possible to find them.

It used to be that, in order to get a story like Amina’s, journalists would have to insinuate themselves into the settings of such stories. The downside to that process was that it was risky, not just because it often directly endangered the journalist, but also because their inability to be all places at once meant that they sometimes missed the best stories. Increasingly, though, the internet is everywhere, meaning that, at least in principle, we’re no longer dependent on the fortitude and good fortune of journalist who might still not manage to be in the right place at the right time.

The upside to the old boots-on-the-ground school of journalism was that on-location reporters could generally be trusted to tell whether or not their sources actually existed. The internet performs poorly on that score, but we don’t always remember as much until something like the Gay Girl scandal reminds us.

That isn’t to say that the internet won’t one day make it possible to find reliable sources of information in otherwise inaccessible corners of the world. According to a report in Sunday’s New York Times, the Obama administration is working on plans to deploy shadow internet and independent mobile phone networks that would allow dissidents to work around the control that foreign governments exert over local access to global communications networks.

It seems entirely unlikely that the government would simply deploy those technologies without keeping tabs on who is using them, so the information coming from those sources would be, at least in principle, reliably linked to actual identities, and not fabricated persona. It’s almost something out of a William Gibson novel, but open and publicly available information this is not. It’s getting to be so that the only online information you can trust is that deployed by the very institutions the internet was once expected to buck.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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