Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Journalistic Verification, Amina Arraf, and Haystack

How did a Syrian blogger, who told beautiful and heartwrenching stories of life as a lesbian in Damascus, manage to trick so many people? How did an American software engineer, whose passion for the Iranian cause led him to build what he dubbed the safest of circumvention tools, do the same? The stories of Amina Arraf and Haystack contain odd parallels: Both took advantage of fervor around Middle Eastern uprisings, both had a grassroots formation of followers…and both thrived on the promotion of professional journalists, whose praise helped garner them support. Both were also absolutely sensational stories that may have caused journalists, otherwise scrutinizing, to discard their usual standards.

I’ve written extensively on the Haystack story, but to quickly re-cap: Circumvention tool comes out of nowhere, built by young, outspoken engineer. Wild claims about efficacy. Media picks up on the hype, young engineer wins awards, media builds the hype even further. Circumvention and censorship experts begin to raise doubts about the tool itself, eventually get ahold of it, tear it apart. Turns out it’s not as secure as the engineer–and by extension, the media–had hyped it to be.

In the case of Amina Arraf, her blog–Gay Girl in Damascus–gained a following amongst bloggers and Middle East enthusiasts, then was quickly catapulted into relative blogger stardom after a series of articles in prominent publications profiled her. Therefore, when on June 6, her “cousin Rania” posted to her blog that she had been kidnapped, the public was quick to believe it. It wasn’t until the next day, when Andy Carvin and others began to question the story, that the details started unraveling as the public quickly jumped in to sleuth the story.

So what made journalists cast aside their usual levels of scrutiny? Or, is it perhaps that journalists are not as careful as we trust them to be?

I would argue that the journalistic treatment of the Haystack story was far more problematic, not least because it was easier to verify: After all, the product’s engineer was based in the US. He was reachable by phone and traveled for several interviews and awards. Numerous journalists met him, and yet not one after questioned the security of the tool. In the case of Amina, the journalists (the pseudonymous “Kathryn Marsh” and Shira Lazar) who first profiled her should have seen red flags when they couldn’t get her on the phone, but they were also dealing with a situation in which digging too much could’ve put an already endangered woman in far more danger.

The Facebook page of "Amina Arraf", before it was removed

Nevertheless, the details laid out on Amina’s blog (parents’ and siblings’ names, place of birth) and her now-defunct Facebook account (over 100 photographs, numerous comments about her life) could have been checked up on. And the details in her blog that numerous Syrians have now picked apart (her father standing up to the mokhabarat, her spotting a Syrian woman in the Umayyad mosque wearing a Star of David) could have been scrutinized early on.

I asked Zeynep Tufekci, a colleague and friend who has written about both cases, for her take: “Arguably, Haystack was verifiable whereas it is never possible to completely verify Amina’s identity without somewhat endangering her. Haystack can and should be avoided and journalists should have done much better job re: Amina. But I’m not sure they can completely avoid a future Amina.”

Now, this is where I need to insert my own role in all of this: While I did not fall for the Haystack story (and was one of the earliest to question its veracity), I very much fell for Amina Arraf. Why? Well, first of all, I had spoken with her numerous times. Her knowledge of Syria stood up to my tests. Her personality in private conversation was consistent with her personality on the public blog. Friends claimed to know her (one even suggested she knew her “in real life” – looking back, the suggestion was rather vague, the boastfulness of someone who wants to get close to a story).

I was also late to believe she wasn’t real, and that, for me, is both easier and more painful to explain. It is also a story I hesitate to share, but one which continues to haunt me, as well as remind me every single day why I do what I do.

In 2009, I wrote a piece for the HuffPost entitled “Blogging in Iran: A Dangerous Prospect.” After writing the story, a young Iranian blogger named Omidreza Mirsayafi emailed me to tell me his story. He wrote:

When I see your post on the mentioned website, I became so happy that a journalist in other corner of world writes about the situations of Iranians journalist & bloggers and is concerned about us.

I don’t want talk about my past experiences because it saddens me. these days I’m so sad and I don’t know what to do. I was sentenced two years and six months in prison just for the contents of my blog. just for explain my ideas. many of journalist and bloggers and human rights activists got into trouble specially in last 4 years.Iran GOV heap scorn on the people of Iran specially the journalists, students, human rights & woman activists. We wish one day write in our blogs & papers trouble-free.

After this initial email, Omidreza and I exchanged a few more emails, and had a few chats. He even called me once. But new as I was to this scene, and owing to my own personal circumstances at the time, I didn’t do as much as I should, as much as he asked. On March 18, 2009, he died in Tehran’s Evin Prison. I wrote about it three days later, confessing my own guilt over having not said enough.

It is very much because of this story that I had–no, have–difficulty letting Amina’s story go. While her story has unraveled almost completely at this point, there’s still a small chance that the girl behind the blog was kidnapped. And even if she wasn’t, there is no doubt that thousands of Syrians have been imprisoned these past few months, hundreds killed. While Amina, if entirely fake, should not be the face of those Syrians, it’s so easy to ascribe her that role. We wanted to believe in her. We saw the beauty and tragedy in her stories and put her on a pedestal. Some have suggested it was because she was a lesbian, others have suggested it was her purported dual American citizenship. I don’t really believe it was either. Rather, it was the sense of courage we saw in her, to tell her story so loudly, that made us believe.

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  1. Certainly SOMEONE has been on the receiving end of injustice in the struggle in Syria and other Arab lands. That SOMEONE may be deathly afraid to tell his or her story. Perhaps that is the reason the hoax was perpetrated: to speak on behalf of the gentle souls slain in the current movement toward change. (I’d rather that be the explanation than the entire thing was concocted by a fiction writer).

  2. Rania who is she? I presume she can’t be contacted either? Or perhaps she is the missing person in question …or just another identity commodity.

  3. well, i’m not sure if she exist/doesn’t. from a technical side, you can do whatever possible and yet not to be caught even if you check the same site regularly [i’d refer to the famous /b/ gang of anonymous]. the issue of online identity is a huge field to believe in or not. as an example, i know a certain blogger who claims to be a lesbian while in real life she dates men regularly. specially in arab world, its not that easy to be outspoken in such issues [despite your online claim that you are “out of the closet”]

    i doubted that her name is Amina Arraf since day1. i doubt more that she is abducted even. a person with high level of personal security might take fake measures to ensure level of safety. the only thing confirms her existance is our imagination mixed by stories we’d like to believe it belongs to her…

    its not an Amina arraf issue, its an issue of online identity. how do we know pictures & videos published everyday on @AJArabic are true or lets say happened today at the named location? we want to believe they are, and we hope the little signs we use to believe in the truth are true..

  4. Thanks for writing this .. in the quest for truth it is important to admit when you were fooled, and why. Not many people are brave enough to admit their ‘weakness’. It is even more difficult not to become a cynic, ignoring also the real stories, as also the real stories can be ‘unrealistically fantastical’. We need to remain on the one hand openminded, maybe even a bit naive, while also remaining critical, never forgetting that we cannot know the full truth, especially not in such difficult cases. Live with the uncertainty, accept it like a scientist. Accept that sometimes you cannot be more than a searcher, never a knower, and avoid becoming a believer.

  5. I believe you blocked me from twitter as clearly I was filling your feed with my thoughts. Can I just say I am new to twitter and am not accustomed to the etiquette or how my content can be managed by others. Whilst you might be overloaded I am quite the opposite and have no context with which to empathize, which led me to be a little to enthusiastic no doubt. Twitter to me does seem like a very throwaway medium for communication so this formality did surprise me a little.
    However you cover an interesting area and I wish to follow your feed….also I’m not comfortable being blocked by anyone as if infers a negative social connotation, especially when it’s down to a cultural ignorance on my own behalf. So I request to be unblocked and will only comment with moderation. Marshmallowhail

  6. Updates popped up again. Probably just a twitter malfunction. My bad.

  7. I have a clear rule of thumb when it comes to online interaction. Always assume that the person you are chatting/emailing/tweeting to or reading about is an obese 55 year-old guy from Arkansas named Dwayne.

  8. Thanks for this, Jillian. These stories do have a lot to do with our empathy and our need to believe. I also regret not having enough at certain points, completely understand and sympathize…

  9. Jillian, I appreciate your writing, including this piece. Why are we so credulous? Is it because the Amina Arraf story confirms our biases?

    • I don’t know – for me it’s not really about her sexual preference (after all, I advocate regularly for all threatened bloggers) but because of “her” excellent writing and depictions of Syria. I imagine the reasoning varies for others as well.

  10. Well there’s no doubt this was picked up by the papers for its titillation value. Had the same content been from another source then it would have been treated differently. No point getting introspective or going on a guilt trip. News has to surf the entertainment wave to get the embedded message across.

  11. Actually, the people saying that no one in Syria would wear a star pendant are likely unfamiliar with Syria themselves, less than the alleged hoaxer certainly.

    A five-pointed star pendant is a common symbol of faith worn by _DRUZE_ women

    • It specifically said “Star of David,” which is rather distinct from the Druze Star. On the other hand, the Druze flag looks awfully similar to the pride flag, to the uninitiated.

  12. No, the exact quote was:
    “Certainly, many Sunnis are involved – and I would venture the vast majority of the Sunnis are at least supportive – but the Islamic parties are not even in the leading role, even if they are all for the democratizing of society. I have sat in mosques here on Fridays and noticed that the woman to my right wears a cross while the one to my left has a star pendant. Even among the ‘muslims’, I’ve noticed these past ten weeks that many .”

    Whoever makes the claim that the hoaxer made a mistake on this is making a mistake

    • Oh! You’re right – I relied on a secondary source instead of that of the blogger.

      That said, it would be nearly as uncommon for a Druze woman to attend a mosque…

  13. Yes, it is. But the implication of the passage is that Christians and Druze as well as ‘secular’ Sunnis were meeting up in mosques. That has a strong ring of truth.

    My own guess is that there really was an actual Syrian woman (or women) doing most, if not all of the writing and McMasters was simply her contact and that he agreed to ‘take the fall’ for her. Judging by his statements and details about him, it is hard to believe that he could have gotten so many details right. However, whoever she is, he’s the patsy.

    But I might be totally wrong

    • I highly doubt that – Rather, I think it was MacMaster’s wife, who’s pursuing a PhD in Syrian studies. The voice is clearly American (or native English speaking) to me, and I can’t imagine why any Syrian-American would perpetuate a hoax like this.

  14. That is possible too. Just no way he could have written it, that is for sure

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