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:


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 – 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 –

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

Suspected Fraudsters Behind the Sony DRM Virus Arrested

Three men have been arrested in the UK and Finland following an investigation into internet fraud. The three are a motley bunch, according to The Sunday Times: a 63-year-old from England, a 28-year-old from Scotland and a 19-year-old from Finland. Together they are alleged to have formed a gang called M00P. They are accused of being behind a virus known as Ryknos, Breplibot or Stinx-Q, which apparently allowed the gang access to commercial information through a back door. Thousands of computers, most of them in the UK, were infected. Infection here means total control over the computer in question. The virus was first spotted in November 2005.

What’s particularly interesting about this, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the mainstream press, is that the virus used a vulnerability created by Sony’s much despised DRM copy-protection software — a program installed as part of software to play Sony’s CDs on computers, but which would secretly install extra code designed to protect the CD from being copied beyond a limited number of times. The virus basically piggybacked the hole left by Sony’s software, so unless users who had installed Sony’s software had removed it, they were at the virus’ mercy.

The virus was well targeted and used clever social engineering tricks. It was tailored to businesses, disguised as a requested update for a photo attached to an email that read, in part, “Hello, Your photograph was forwarded to us as part of an article we are publishing for our December edition of Total Business Monthly. Can you check over the format and get back to us with your approval or any changes? If the picture is not to your liking then please send a preferred one. We have attached the photo with the article here.” Who’s not going to click on that? I know I nearly did.

If those detained were involved, it’ll be interesting to hear what they’ve got to say about the Sony rootkit (which has long been abandoned. Great piece on the saga by Wade Roush in this month’s Technology Review.

Microsoft DVDs and the Elusive Truth

What’s true and what’s not? Not that easy to ascertain these days (not that it ever was particularly easy) with blogs and all that. This piece from The Business has, as you might have read, been roundly condemned as untrue: Microsoft invents a one-play only DVD to combat Hollywood piracy :

COMPUTER software giant Microsoft has developed a cheap, disposable pre-recorded DVD disc that consumers can play only once. The discs would give Hollywood increased control over the release of new films and allow consumers the chance to watch a film at the fraction of the price of an ordinary pre-recorded DVD. More important, the discs would prevent copying and digital piracy, which is costing the film and music industry billions in lost revenues.

Despite being widely cited, it has been shot down by Scoble and others. Not only has it been called incorrect, but also a “hoax”. Not the kind of thing a publication seeking a reputation would like to hear one of its front page stories called. After all, The Business is owned by the Barclay brothers, “who have other publishing interests in The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Edinburgh Evening News, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator magazine”, according to the website.

So were the doubters right, or a tad quick with their ack-ack fire? I contacted the author, business editor Tony Glover, who says the online publication “stand[s] by the story 100% and will be running a follow-up on Sunday naming sources”. As it’s only Friday we’ll have to wait, but I’m more interested in the ping-pong this story throws up, and the difficulty readers have in ascertaining the truth. Is Scoble a Microsoft source? Is the fact that a Microsoft spokesperson “concludes” the story is not true, is it not true? I’m agnostic on whether the story is true or not (a fancy way of saying I don’t really care). But I think certain basic journalistic standards apply here. Such as

  • Someone writing the story should get an official comment on the assertion, and include that comment, or non-comment in the piece. Not to do so on anything remotely controversial is a professional lapse. To do so shows you’ve at least tried to get the story confirmed.
  • People citing, picking up or linking to the story should make their source clear, in a link and a mention of the source. Not to do so leaves the writer vulnerable should the story not be true, but, more importantly, gives the reader a chance to judge for himself the veracity of the story. (It would also help, in the case of obscure publications, to include some background on the source to assist the reader in this.)
  • When a writer finds a story they believe to be untrue, they should try to contact the author for comment when publishing their ‘knock-down’ story. At the very least, they must show they have authoritative sources who contest the story’s accuracy or veracity (not the same thing) and make this clear. They might also choose careful language which allows for the possibility of gray between the black and the white — “source X said he knew of no such meeting/product/agreement”, or “company X denied the story and said on the contrary it had no plans for xxxx”. Saying something is a hoax/has no truth to it/is bogus without enclosing the comment in quotes is not only a tad extreme, it’s not good journalistic practice. Imagine if someone did it to you.

Let’s see what Mr. Glover and The Business come up with on Sunday. Maybe all this is a storm in a teacup and we’re all comparing apples and oranges. But I’m all for a bit of temperance on the part of journalists and bloggers alike when dealing with the truth or lack of truth of another person’s story. Let he who casts the first stone be dang sure his version is pristine white.

Wikinews Coverage of the London Blasts

Just been checking out how Wikinews is handling the explosions in London. Very well, I have to say: Explosions, ‘serious incidents’ occuring across London .

There’s a wealth of detail here, culled from a wide array of sources in many different languages. There are maps, diagrams and photographs, including quite a few from witnesses, such as this one, from Adam Stacey who was on the northern line just past Kings Cross. Train suddenly stopped and filled with smoke. People in carriage smashed tube windows to get out and then were evacuated along the train tunnel. He’s suffering from smoke inhalation but fine otherwise.

It’s all really good stuff. And well ordered, although perhaps not how a traditional media editor would organise it. That’s not a criticism: I’m not the first to question whether the old ‘news pyramid’ of writing news copy shouldn’t be superceded by something more suited to the Web age. For example: putting in a telephone number for worried families near the top of the page; putting information under subheadings; very clear sourcing; holding off (or backing away) from the ‘six blasts’ version which the UK police don’t seem to be supporting in their most recent statements.

Of course, there’s another irony at work here. News websites add as many stories as they can at a time like this, with the dateline moving between London, Scotland and Singapore, including updates, sidebars etc. However, the Wikinews model actually works better for most readers, adding incremental tweaks to a core story on one page as new information comes in. (Google News, for example, has 721 stories on the topic as I write.) It may not work for the news-junkie, but for most of us it’s a great resource, a real working draft of history as it happens.

Well done, Wikinews.

News: Hotels Ban Phones, Sort Of

 From the very sizeable Cheapskate Hoteliers Dept comes a report (thanks from Scotland of a mobile phone jamming scam, as exposed by the Daily Record. Businessman Ronnie McGuire, the paper says, is flooding Scotland with high-tech phone jammers that are illegal to use. Sold to hotels, restaurants, bars and bed and breakfasts, the devices emit radio waves which wipe out the signal to mobile phones, rendering them useless. Guests, unaware their signal has been sabotaged, are forced to use expensive hotel phone lines or call boxes.
McGuire is quoted as saying: “It comes up on their phone `no service’ and people think there’s no service in that area.
But it’s best not to tell anyone you’ve got it because they might not be too happy.” True, too true. Of course they must be great for a bit of peace and quiet.