The Real Net Effect: The Strange Cases of The Cyber-Hoaxers in Syria and Uzbekistan (Doherty & Kendzior)
In June, Tom MacMaster, a white male American, was revealed as the real persona behind the blog "Gay Girl in Damascus". The hoax became a cause célèbre, especially in the Western press, with media outlets tripping over themselves to point the finger at MacMaster, typically failing to acknowledge whether they themselves had been tripped up by the tales of the "Gay Girl".
An even stranger saga unfolded in Uzbekistan this year. Uzbek opposition groups, human rights organisations, and journalists were all fooled by their online encounters with someone posing as a dissident woman, who apparently --- but falsely --- committed suicide after having been detained and questioned by the regime over several days.
Both cases appear to be a consequence of individual mischief. However, in an age of internet activism they offer a stark warning, not least given the growing sophistication of government agencies in monitoring and infiltrating on-line networks. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the next hoaxer to be outed will turn out to be an agent of the state, extending the work of the State's real-life, fake activists such as Mark Kennedy and others in Britain.
Writing for Electronic Intifada, Benjamin Doherty draws upon recently-released documents from the University of Edinburgh, where Tom MacMaster was studying as a graduate student, to ask what happened to him after the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax was exposed. Sarah Kendzior, in The Atlantic, tells the story of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, the Uzbek activist who never existed.
Whatever Happened to Tom MacMaster, the "Gay Girl in Damascus" Hoaxer?
Benjamin Doherty, Electronic Intifada
Last June The Electronic Intifada exposed the identity of the person behind the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax. The perpetrator was Tom MacMaster a 40-year old American graduate student at the University of Edinburgh.
After a surge of media attention, MacMaster disappeared from the public eye. The University of Edinburgh promised to investigate. But what happened and was MacMaster ever held accountable for a hoax that many believe caused genuine harm?
The Strange Saga of a Made-Up Activist and Her Life—and Death—as a Hoax
Sarah Kendzior, The Atlantic
On July 28, 2011, a 32-year-old Uzbek woman studying in Munich named Gulsumoy Abdujalilova joined Facebook, except she didn't. Then, earlier this month, after horrific abuses from the Uzbekistan government, she tragically and spectacularly took her own life, except she didn't, because she had never existed in the first place.
Beginning this summer, someone launched an elaborate hoax that fooled members of the Uzbek opposition, Uzbek human rights community, the Uzbek and English-language media-- and me. Over four months, Gulsumoy updated her page several times each week. She wrote about mundane events -- missing her mother, getting the flu, the arrival of Ramadan -- and, often, about politics. Gulsumoy posted links to stories about corruption in the Uzbek government and protest movements organized by Uzbeks abroad.
In August, she listed the People's Movement of Uzbekistan (O'zbekiston Xalq Harakati), an Uzbek opposition movement formed in May 2011, under "work". For Gulsumoy, as for most Uzbeks, who live under a harsh and repressive regime, the internet provided the only way to participate in dissident politics. She befriended other Uzbek dissident, posting on their walls, chatting with them on Skype, and writing to them over email. On November 15, she updated her status with an Uzbek proverb: "You learn who your real friends are when you are in trouble." This was her final post.
On December 5, a reporter from the Uzbek-language branch of the BBC tweeted that an Uzbek activist had killed herself, following a brutal interrogation by the Uzbek national security services. This seemed plausible --- as a new report from Human Rights Watch makes clear, torture and arbitrary detainment are common in Uzbekistan.
The next day, reporters from BBC, Radio Free Europe, and the well-regarded Uzbek-language websites Ferghana.ru and Uznews.net confirmed that the activist in question was Gulsumoy Abdujalilova. According to their sources, Gulsumoy had returned to Uzbekistan from Germany and was detained and interrogated by the national security services for four days. Upon her release, she committed suicide, leaving behind a note saying that the national security services tortured her and asked her to carry out acts of violence against Uzbek opposition leaders living abroad. The brutality of the case shocked Uzbek activists, particularly those who had met her online. Several claimed that they knew Gulsumoy through her Facebook page, which seemed to be her only public connection to the dissident community.
A few days later, Uzmetronom, a website known for printing scandalous stories about both the Uzbek government and the opposition, posted a story on December 8 claiming that Gulsumoy was a fraud. In Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, a prominent human rights advocate who had learned of the case after receiving a call from someone claiming to be Gulsumoy's sister, began her own investigation. Using information that members of the Uzbek opposition had received from whomever was pretending to be Gulsumoy, she discovered that Gulsumoy had never lived, much less died. A search in Munich by Uzbek exiles there yielded the same result -- or, that is, no result. Finding no trace of Gulsumoy's existence, Uzbek activists conceded that the whole thing was a hoax. The Facebook page, which disappeared on December 14 without explanation, was a fake. So was every detail of the Gulsumoy Abdujalilova story: the note, the pictures of her sent to Uzbek media sites, and the phone calls like the one Elena Urlaeva had received.
One question remained -- why?