Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blogging on Bloggers in the Middle East

Over the past week, the media and blogosphere have been abuzz over the mysterious case of Amina Arraf, the Syrian-American author of "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blog, after her cousin claimed that she had been abducted by the Syrian authorities. The online community grew frantic as supporters feared for her safety. The State Department even got involved, pressing the Syrian government for details. Journalists started probing her case, raising questions over her identity only to subsequently learn that Amina is not real, but a fictitious character created by the American Tom MacMaster. Activists and bloggers are now furious with MacMaster, who initially published a trite apology but has since spoken more reflectively about the hoax. While he may be a selfish pseudo narcissist, he certainly did not intend to be malicious. The Washington Post reports that he has a long history of social activism and respect for Middle Eastern societies. Nevertheless his deception did deflect attention from activists truly suffering in repressive societies and has reinforced the dilemma for those who need to publish under pseudonyms for reasons of personal safety, making it even more difficult to trust them.

The strange case of Amina Arraf demonstrates the best and worst of contemporary journalism. It is only because of the careful investigative work of several journalists and activists that the hoax could even be uncovered at all. And yet only last week media from around the world reported on her abduction with certainty. In an interview with National Public Radio, MacMaster reflected upon this situation, concluding "that people have a propensity to believe" and "that media coverage of the Middle of East is 'superficial'" because "no one stopped to question him." Media outlets including CBS, ABC, USA Today, National Public Radio, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, and the Sydney Morning Herald all carried uncritical reports about Amina's abduction. Of course Fox News added its own sensationalist spin, suggesting that she was kidnapped at gunpoint. The Associated Press wire service published an account of her abduction that was corroborated by a local activist organization, which reasonably puts into question the veracity of Syrian NGOs. At the same time, several brave activists in the LGBT community in Syria did indeed risk their lives by attempting to corroborate Amina's story.

What all this amounts to is that while some journalists can indeed be reliable to eventually get the story right, more often our media in collusion with activists is likely to promote propaganda. As defined by Merriam Webster, propaganda means "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; or ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also a public action having such an effect." Our media clearly has taken sides on the demonstrations in Syria. This shows journalists have ethics which is indeed something very good, but the bias needs to be recognized because it has serious political implications. Can we even imagine Western journalists taking at face value reports by Syrian state media? No, of course not. So how did all of these news outlets merely mimic what was written on a blog? What ever happened to fact checking? And when some reporters do attempt to corroborate the account how come selected "human rights" organizations abandon the human aspect of their work? They seem to forget that social facts are not objective things they can create at will but instead histories dependent on human subjects and subjectivity.

We also must question when Western commentators claim that popular uprisings throughout the Middle East are being enabled by the Internet. Earlier this year Newseek published an article after the toppling of Muburak titled "Inside Egypt's Facebook Revolt". Perhaps this is another articulation of colonialism, after all much of these web technologies originated in the West. We want to take credit for the bravery and success of the Arab peoples, who could never do this on their own because they are inferior. They need our Internet. But of course realities on the ground contradict these racist observations. The Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report reveals that only 7.66 per cent of Egyptians are even on Facebook. We may mistakenly think that such a small minority is representative of Egypt because we Americans live in a country where only around 40 per cent of our population bothered to vote in the last election, but thankfully the Egyptian revolution was more popular than that. And interestingly the Arab countries with the highest number of Facebook and Twitter users are two of the most undemocratic: 50 per cent of the United Arab Emirates' population is on Facebook, and Qatar has the highest percentage of Twitter users. Incidentally, the unelected government in Qatar just approved a press law that states "journalists will be free to write on all issues except those concerning national security and friendly countries," reviving the repressive censorship practices of previous generations.

Which just makes it even more shameful that in countries which do have reasonable access to freedom of the press, we exercise it so poorly. We lambast the state medias in authoritarian regimes for parroting the will of the ruling party. And yet is it any better to parrot privileged opposition activists who may or may not even be real? We need to start being more critical. And that also extends to readers of this blog. I hope that anybody reading this entry questions at least half of what I am saying. At times I share your sentiments. It is only by actively disagreeing with ourselves and each other that we learn how to better articulate and understand our own ideas. Sometimes we even end up changing our minds. And lastly, but equally important, we also need to stop focusing all of our attention on the 7.66 per cent of Egyptians or Arabs who may sound kind of like us and instead start recognizing the 92.34 per cent who are not online. Modern democracy, after all, is about counting everybody.

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