Hello, open-minded readers. My name is Karen Dybis. I am a freelance journalist in the Metro Detroit area who writes newspaper articles, magazine stories and blogs at night as my two children sleep one floor above me.
Fact or fiction? Luckily for you, the previous paragraph is true. The reality is I could be anyone living anywhere and writing just about anything. And I could be pretty convincing. I am a professional writer, after all.
The key to my identity may be the word “professional.” How I represent myself online matters to me. However, there are others in the wide-open world of journalism profession who have proven to be top-notch hucksters, finding an audience for what they purport to be journalism. And, as anyone who has ever listened to shock-jock radio knows, the public can be easily deceived.
Online hoaxes are hardly new, but there are some situations so ridiculous that they should become standard reading in journalism school. One such example is the story of a 40-year-old graduate student who was able to trick international media – think Fox News, CNN, Huffington Post, The Washington Post – and the thousands of loyal readers of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” into believing he was a young, lesbian Syrian woman named Amina Arraf.
What makes the deception by American Tom MacMaster, the then-medieval studies major at the University of Edinburgh, even more spectacular is how much media his blog received when he posted that Amina had been kidnapped. Little did McMaster know that when his character conveniently “disappeared,” the world would react quickly and strongly.
Meanwhile, the stunned world found out just days later that MacMaster was the mastermind of it all. Several devoted fans of the blog began digging into the story, discovered MacMaster’s ruse and exposed it through articles, their own blogs and television news programs. He had three armed men steal Amina away so he and his wife could have a few days of vacation.
The story was shocking when it first broke last June, and it is no less shocking now. The question now is what the media learned from the experience – and how easily could it be fooled again. Journalists and bloggers alike can learn from MacMaster’s failings are how necessary it is to take time to examine the author of a blog.
I admit that I took this particular case to heart as I delved into it for this essay. I have been a freelance writer for about six years, and I can honestly say that I have received jobs, handled interviews and completed monetary exchanges for publications entirely through email. Sometimes, there haven’t been any telephone calls or person-to-person conversations. I have worked with editors in places like Alaska and Boston. The only time I saw their faces was when I looked up their profiles on social media sites.
It is obscenely easy to be someone else online. Lots of people love to be anonymous “trolls” – the usually anonymous opinion mongers who torture journalists on websites. It is possible to track them down. I’ve done so myself. Thankfully, more legitimate web sites and online newspapers are changing their policies on how people must identify themselves when making comments on stories to require some transparency.
MacMaster, as many learned later, is an expert at avoiding personal contact with his readers, online commentors as well as interested journalists. As Danny O’Brien wrote in the Irish Times, “In the Amina case, absolutely no one had met Amina, and she wriggled out of any situation that might pin her down. She failed to turn up to press interviews in Damascus; she claimed Skype was not working for online phone calls; when a close online friend wanted to call her, she claimed she had to throw away her mobile for fear she was being tracked.”
But just how easy is it to fool people online? Out of curiosity, I created a completely false online persona. It took all of 10 minutes – and that’s not hyperbole. I chose my middle-school pseudonym, Kim Henley, as my new identity. After all, the lovely Ms. Henley under my direction had written a few letters to the editor of my local newspaper, The Detroit News, in her time, and I knew it would be easy for me to remember her name.
I started on LinkedIn and wrote a professional resume within minutes. I then linked that account to “her” new Twitter and Facebook. I quickly set up a Hotmail account and I was ready to roll. A few keystrokes later, I had my own website and a blog. Instant celebrity was mine to have with some creative writing and marketing. Within a few days, I also had my first request to connect on LinkedIn, a popular professional networking site.
Granted, I was being deceitful. But there are plenty of people who write under an assumed name. Why not start a racy blog? Why not apply for jobs? Why not post things that were inflammatory just to get a few kicks out of it? I care about what would happen when – not if – I was caught.
I spoke with several newspaper and blogging colleagues about the MacMaster case. Many were surprised to hear about it. The majority felt that what MacMaster did was outrageous and the blog should never have lasted as long as it did without the author’s identity being discovered by readers.
Desiree Cooper, a longtime writer and venerable columnist for The Detroit Free Press, said identity is somewhat flexible in cyberspace – mostly because she distrusts the information she finds there on a fundamental level.
“Since I was raised on old school journalism and worked in mainstream media for more than 15 years, I come to the web with a great deal of in-born skepticsm. The fact is that, unless a blog is hosted by a traditional medium, I assume that I'm reading something produced by a hobbyist or a promoter, not a journalist,” Cooper said “There are a few blogs that I sample (not many) and I only read them to find out what people are talking about. I see them as purely a way to ‘listen in.’”
Stepping away from traditional identities actually is one reason people enjoy being online, Cooper added.
“The Gay Girl in Damascus is an extreme example, but I’m not sure how truly rare it is for people to assume different identities online. Product promoters appear as ‘ordinary people.’ Men and women switch gender identities to explore and express themselves in new ways. People pose as ‘experts’ in order to sell their books/clothing/DVDs. It's just one more reason to always distrust whatever you read in blogs,” Cooper said.
After all, asked former Detroit-area reporter Anne Marie Gattari, who was making the phone call to find a male voice on the other side?
“This is craziness. And the worst part is the fake blogger and wife become media stars,” Gattari said. “If I'm going to use something in my blog or column that I’ve read on Internet, I confirm the writer’s credentials by checking out his or her website. I also will Google the writer to see if there have been news stories about him or her. If the person has any credentials at all, it’s not hard to find info on him or her."
Gattari said having at least one real, personal contact, even a simple telephone call, is better than conducting all of your exchanges online.
“I typically do not read blogs that are not attached to a legitimate news source,” said Gattari. “I'm not afraid to pick up the phone and call. No reporter or writer should use email only for interviews. It can lead to unauthentic sources being quoted. And besides, it’s lazy.”
Blogger and author Monica Marie Jones said she prefers to see her blog as an online journal, and not as a marketing technique like MacMaster and others see theirs.
“It reflects the thoughts, views, opinions and interests of the writer. If you want to write fiction, just write a book...or create a blog where you showcase your fictional work or a fictional character, but let your readers know that this is the case. I feel that it is just plain wrong to mislead people in that way,” Jones said.
Even my local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists touched on the issue a few months back. A young journalist asked if she could use Facebook posts in her stories. Several veteran reporters were adamantly against the practice, saying that for all you know, they could be a 16-year-old Russian kid with excellent English skills.
Da. I mean, yes. Yes, they could.
Karen Dybis is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has blogged for Time magazine, worked the business desk for The Detroit News and jumped on breaking stories for publications including City’s Best, Corp! magazine and Agence France-Presse newswire.