By Jennifer O'Connell
On the internet, as New Yorker magazine once said, no one knows you’re a dog.
Or, perhaps more pertinently, no one knows you’re a middle-aged American man with an unhealthy fascination for the private lives of lesbians.
Just ask the readers of LezGetReal, an enormously popular lesbian blog, whose editor ‘Paula Brooks’ admitted last week she’s actually Bill Graber, a 58-year-old retired military man.
Or ask Jelena Lecic, the Croatian born Londoner who woke up one day recently to find herself splashed all over the websites of the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, alongside an account of the abduction of a lesbian blogger in Syria she’d never heard of.
Or ask the unfortunate teenager from the west of Ireland who was maliciously accused of cheating in her Junior Cert exam by one of her classmates in a Facebook status update that went viral last week.
Everyone who uses the internet regularly knows that much of what you find in cyberspace comes with a health warning. It’s part of the silent, unwritten contract you make when you log on. You start from the premise that everyone else might be of canine persuasion, and then you simply get on with it.
You log onto Twitter in the knowledge that the 30-year-old guy who tweets funny things his 80-year-old dad says may not have a dad. Or be a guy. But it doesn’t stop you enjoying his tweets.
You use Wikipedia regularly, but you realise that while it might be a useful tool for sorting out rows that break out in the pub, you know you wouldn’t want to rely on it in an exam. Or a newspaper article.
What makes people make stuff up on the internet? It’s a bit like what explorer George Mallory said when he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. ‘‘Because it’s there," was his reply.
People lie online simply because they can. It probably starts out as a small deception: a harmless exercise in fiction writing.
Then they do it again, and they start to get noticed. Nobody questions them, and they realise they can say anything they like and it won’t be challenged. And suddenly they’re hooked. And even if they start to have second thoughts, once the lie is out there, there’s no pulling it back.
I doubt - or at least I hope it is the case - that Tom MacMaster, the middle aged American living in Scotland who was unmasked last week as the man responsible for the hoax Gay Girl in Damascus blog, had any idea what would happen when he posted his first blog post as ‘Amina Arraf’, a 35-year-old Syrian-American, living with her father in Damascus, last February.
I doubt he thought about the consequences of invading Jelena Lecic’s privacy by trawling through her Facebook account and stealing her photographs to give his creation a face, complete with the distinctive mole over her left eyebrow.
And when he couldn’t take the pressure any more and decided to ‘‘kill her off’’ last week, he certainly didn’t set out to endanger the lives of the activists in Syria who risked their own safety investigating the fictional account - posted a fortnight ago by a ‘‘cousin of Amina’s’’ - of her abduction.
He probably didn’t think too hard either about the man hours he was wasting in newsrooms around the world as they reported on an abduction that never happened; or about the fact that while reporters were busy covering Amina’s plight, they were distracted from real events happening in Syria.
Predictably, much soul-searching went on in the media last week when it was revealed that the spirited lesbian commentator and would-be poet, who had occupied so many column and screen inches across so many publications, had never existed.
‘‘There’s no doubt that MacMaster expended an enormous amount of effort compiling the blog and creating Gay Girl’s persona: poems, long, imaginary reminiscences - even warning readers to treat some other websites ‘with a very large grain of salt’ - but to what purpose?" the Guardian wondered. ‘‘Why on earth would a married man in Scotland pretend to be a lesbian living in Damascus?"
MacMaster published an account of his reasons last week, but while it’s long on sorries, it’s unsurprisingly short on actual motivation.
He did it, it seems, for no more noble reason than he could. MacMaster’s rather painful mea culpa ends with a direct apology to Jelena Lecic and Paula Brooks.
But in a twist no one could possibly have predicted, the same Paula Brooks - editor of the LezGetReal website, which was the first to give Amina a platform - also turns out to have been the figment of another middle-aged man’s imagination.
Brooks, like Amina, had become a regular commentator in the US media, though she insisted she could only speak through her father on the phone because she was deaf.
So when Amina was outed as MacMaster, it was practically inevitable that the spotlight would turn to Graber.
He insists the connection between the two men was coincidental: ‘‘It was a major sock-puppet hoax crash into a major sock-puppet hoax."
Meanwhile, in Ireland, another - less ambitious but no less sinister - online hoax was playing out.
A group of students in the west of Ireland hijacked another student’s Facebook page and made completely untrue accusations of cheating against a girl doing her Junior Cert.
Within hours, the student’s name, alongside the allegation that she had ‘‘cheatd in her jc’’ by hiding notes in her hoodie, became a trending topic on Twitter, and the accusations - which were without any foundation whatsoever - were brought to the attention of the State Examination Commission and investigated by journalists.
There is, of course, a lesson in all of this for the media, and it can probably be summed up in three words: check your sources. But there’s a lesson in it for the rest of us as well.
Lying on the internet, as someone once said, is like peeing in a pool. Once it’s out there, there’s no getting it back.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on Sunday June 19, 2011
Photo by Hakan Dahlstroms on Flickr