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Journalistic Verification, Amina Arraf, and Haystack

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?

by Jillian C. York On June 13, 2011

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This post was written on June 10th, before the real identity of Amina Arraf was revealed.

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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.

This post was originally posted on Jillian York’s blog

Photo Credits: Flickr CC josef.stuefer

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