Tag Archives: detective

Gay Lesbian Syrian Blogger? Or a Bearded American from Edinburgh?

Here’s a cautionary tale about how hard it is to verify whether someone is who they say they are:

Syrian lesbian blogger is revealed conclusively to be a married man

Tom MacMaster’s wife has confirmed in an email to the Guardian that he is the real identity behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog

Tom Mcmaster

Syrian lesbian blogger has been revealed to be Tom MacMaster, an American based in Scotland. Public domain

The mysterious identity of a young Arab lesbian blogger who was apparently kidnapped last week in Syria has been revealed conclusively to be a hoax. The blogs were written by not by a gay girl in Damascus, but a middle-aged American man based in Scotland.

The Guardian, frankly, has not covered itself in glory on this issue. The story itself makes no mention of the fact that the paper itself was duped. It was, after all, bloggers did the detective work that uncovered the hoax, not they. There’s this mea culpa, buried deep in a secondary story but it doesn’t apologise for misleading readers for more than a month:

The Guardian did not remove all the pictures until 6pm on Wednesday 8 June, 27 hours after Jelena Lecic first called the Guardian. It took too long for this to happen, for which we should apologise (see today’s Corrections and clarifications). The mitigating factors are that we first acted within four hours but compounded the error by putting up another wrong picture, albeit one that had been up on our website for a month, was unchallenged and was thought to have come directly from “Amina”. We know for a fact that the two pictures are of Jelena Lecic, but we didn’t know much else until thisevening. But we do know that when using social media – as we will continue to do as part of our journalism – the Guardian will have to redouble its efforts in establishing not just methods of verification, but of signalling to the reader the level of verification we think we can reasonably claim.

And even The Guardian hasn’t yet corrected itself: This piece is still up, uncorrected, and illustrating some more journalistic traits by not sourcing the story or expressing any “unconfirmed” thoughts:

image

The only suggestion that something is amiss is this at the end:

• This article was amended on 7 June 2011 and again on 8 June 2011 after complaints that photographs accompanying articles relating to Amina Araf showed someone other than the abducted blogger. The photographs have been removed pending investigation into the origins of the photographs and other matters relating to the blog.

Bottom line. Journalists have got to be smarter: smarter about the old things, such as dual sourcing, being sceptical about everything (a lesbian blogger in Damascus posting pictures of herself and using her real name? Even the author of the Guardian pieces was using a pseudonym—itself a no-no) and doing some basic legwork in trying to authenticate the person. And smart about new stuff: using the same tools the bloggers themselves used in exploring the real person behind it (those people could be forgiven for not having done this earlier: they, after all, are a community and accepted ‘her’ as one would in such a community.)

So what are those ‘new’ tools?

  • basic search. Do we know everything about this person? What kind of online footprint did they have before this all happened?
  • check photos’ origin. Not always easy, but worth doing. File names. Captions. Check out whether there’s any data hidden in the image. Image date.
  • IP addresses of emails and other communications.
  • Website/blog registration. Where? By whom?

These new tools need to be learned by journalists. And we need to learn them quickly.

We also need to find better ways to correct things when we get them wrong, and, frankly, to say sorry. Here are some other outlets that fell for it and have yet at the time of writing to either apologise or correct their stories:

WaPo: Elizabeth Flock, “‘Gay girl in Damascus’ Syrian blogger allegedly kidnapped,” June 7, 2011

CNN: “Will gays be ‘sacrificial lambs’ in Arab Spring?”

AP: Syrian-American gay blogger missing in Damascus – Timesonline.com- World-

NYT (since corrected, sort of, but the comments are intriguing. Readers are gullible too, although they might reasonably feel aggrieved that the NYT didn’t do its job in checking the facts): After Report of Disappearance, Questions About Syrian-American Blogger – NYTimes.com

More links:

Open door- The authentication of anonymous bloggers – Comment is free – The Guardian

Gay Girl in Damascus blog extracts- am I crazy- Maybe – World news – The Guardian

Syrian blogger Amina Abdallah kidnapped by armed men (example of The Guardian duped)

Wikipedia: Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

PR That Doesn’t Bark, Or Barks Too Much

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column, an edited version of which was recorded for my BBC World Service slot. Audio to follow.

There’s a moment in All The President’s Men that nails it.

Bob Woodward is telling his editors about when he’d called up the White House to confirm that Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate burglars, worked there as a consultant for Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon. “Then,” Woodward tells his editors, “the P.R. guy said the weirdest thing to me. (reading) ‘I am convinced that neither Mr. Colson nor anyone else at the White House had any knowledge of, or participation in, this deplorable incident at the Democratic National Committee.'”

Isn’t that what you’d expect him to say, one of the editors says. Absolutely, Woodward replies. So?

Woodward, the script says, has got something and he knows it. “I never asked them about Watergate,” he says. “I simply asked what were Hunt’s duties at the White House. [A beat.] They volunteered that he was innocent when nobody asked if he was guilty.”

This, to me, is not only great cinema but classic journalism. It’s a classic PR error, and you can see it all the time. Not always as dramatically, but it’s there if you notice it. To say or do something that reveals what your client really cares about—and how much they care about it.

I see it in breathless press releases that I never asked for. Read: We really, really need to get this information out. We’re desperate.  So you think I’m just a press release churning machine, is that it?

I see it in interviews when the media-trained exec grinds each answer back to the message bullet-points he’s got tattooed into his brain:

When did you start to think there was a problem with the building? When the people start falling out one side? We have always focused our synergistic approach to inbuilding personnel customer management by being people-centred, and while we regret the involuntary vertical defenestrations, we’re sure that until they exited the building extramurally they felt as empowered as we did about the efficiencies we implemented by removing what turned out to be vital structural features.

I see it in unsolicited pitches that offer interviews with CEOs who really should be busier than this—particularly ones that end with “when is your availability?” as if to say, if we give the impression you already said yes, maybe you might. So you think I’m stupid and gullible, is that it?

I see it in PR companies which are a little too eager to lend us technology columnists a gadget. Read: this is a product that isn’t good enough to sell on its own, so we’ve got a warehouse full of them to try to get fellas like you interested.

I see it in a cupboard full of gadgets that PR companies promised to come pick up after I finished reviewing them but never did. Read: even the client doesn’t really care any about this. And it certainly belies the talk about the review units being in hot demand.

This sounds like heaven, I agree, but the reality is that there is such a thing as too many gadgets. Especially ones which weren’t that good to start with.

Just this morning I saw it in a emailed response from a major software company in response to a very specific question I’d asked. The question was sort of addressed, but tagged onto it was pure PR-speak, addressing a bunch of imaginary questions I hadn’t asked, or even implied I was interested in. Lord knows how long they took to put this together. Actually I know—10 days, because that’s how long I had to wait.

As a journalist, when you get one of these responses your instinct is to remove clumps of hair from your own head, or, if already clump-free, those of family members or passers-by. But actually, buried in the robot speak are the nuggets.

The email in question talked of “a community effort…to understand and unravel this extremely complex issue.”  I’m not going to tell you what the complex issue is, but the words are a giveaway: “We couldn’t figure this one out ourselves so we had to turn to companies we’d have much preferred to have humiliated by getting there first.”

Subtext: We’re not actually as good at this as we thought, or our customers assume. We were out of our depth so we’re falling back on the old “we’re all in this together” trick. Works great if you’re at the bottom of the bucket and the crab above you looks like he’s about to make a break for it.

Buried in all that unrequested bilge are quite a few good story ideas. Nothing tells you a company’s weak spot than PR guff dreamed up in hope of putting journalists off the scent. Thanks, big software company, for pointing out your sensitive spots!

Of course, coupled with the “But I never asked them that” is the Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark clue. In Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze Holmes is summoned to investigate the disappearance of the eponymous racehorse. The less-than-impressed Scotland Yard detective asks Holmes: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

In this case, of course, the dog didn’t bark because it recognised its owner, who turned out to be the guilty party. Whereas the Woodward Clue is about what PR folk put in that wasn’t asked for, the Holmes Clue is about what they leave out. In PRdom this can be requests that go unanswered, questions that are get very short answers while others get long ones, answers that skirt the question, or requested review units that somehow never arrive.

In the case of my big software company response, it’s the fact that they omitted to really answer the question I asked—and got very vague when I sought a timeline. It’s not rocket science to know when smoke is wafting in your direction.

So how should PR avoid these pitfalls? Well, the first rule is to answer the question, or tell the journalist you’re not answering it—and preferably why. Not answering it by pretending she didn’t ask it is going to infuriate a journalist and flag that there’s something there worth chasing.

But worse, don’t answer questions you weren’t asked. At least not directly. You can let it be known there’s more if they want it, but don’t forcefeed them. Journalists aren’t all Robert Redfords, but neither are they foie gras geese.

You can always tell if a journalist knows you’re not answering the question: they’ll nod a lot. Nodding a lot doesn’t mean “I’m agreeing with you, and I’m just desperate to hear more”, it’s “Why is this guy telling me stuff in the press release totally unrelated to what I asked? I wonder if he’d mind if I tore his hair out?” Nod, nod, nod. The nodding, of course, is a desperate attempt to speed up time so he can ask one more question and get to the pub before it shuts. Never works, but it’s a sort of reflex action in the face of too much barking, or not enough.

The Lego Scam

A man after my own heart: AP reports that a man has been arrested accused of stealing a truck full of Lego:

A 40-year-old man is behind bars, accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of a toy geared toward the 6-and-up crowd: Legos. To haul away the evidence, agents working for the U.S. Postal Inspector said they had to back a 20-foot truck to William Swanberg’s house in Reno, Nev., carting away mountains of the multicolored bricks.

Swanberg was indicted Wednesday by a grand jury in Hillsboro, a Portland suburb, which charged him with stealing Legos from Target stores in Oregon. Target estimates Swanberg stole and resold on the Internet up to $200,000 of the brick sets pilfered from their stores in Oregon as well as Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California.

When no one was looking, Swanberg switched the bar codes on Lego boxes, replacing an expensive one with a cheaper label, said Detective Troy Dolyniuk, a member of the Washington County fraud and identity theft enforcement team.

Target officials contacted police after noticing the same pattern at their stores in the five western states. A Target security guard stopped Swanberg at a Portland-area store on Nov. 17, after he bought 10 boxes of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon set. In his parked car, detectives found 56 of the Star Wars set, valued at $99 each, as well as 27 other Lego sets. In a laptop found inside Swanberg’s car, investigators also found the addresses of numerous Target stores in the Portland area, their locations carefully plotted on a mapping software.

Records of the Lego collector’s Web site, Bricklink.Com, show that Swanberg has sold nearly $600,000 worth of Legos since 2002, said Dolyniuk.

Interestingly, folk seemed to have been quite happy to deal with Swanberg on Bricklink.com. He’s been registered on the site since 2002, earning praise from more than 6,000 users, and getting complaints from only 11. He was still shipping up until the last minute: Eight folk posted praise about dealing with him on the day or after he’d been indicted. Only one person seemed to harbour doubts: That person wrote on November 19, four days before Swanberg was indicted: “Wish I knew where these came from…”

Actually, this kind of scam is well documented, and may be a copycat theft. Eagle-eyed readers may recall a piece I wrote a few months back about Douglas Havard, a phisher who was jailed in June for conspiracy to defraud and launder money. According to an earlier piece in the Dallas Observer Havard used to steal expensive Lego sets by switching price tags on Lego boxes. The only difference was that Havard was printing his own price stickers.

What is it with Lego that turns people into criminals?