Monday, June 13, 2011

The Syrian Lesbian Blogger: When Best Intentions Get Lost

The blogosphere went into overdrive this week as 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 not by a gay girl in Damascus, but a middle-aged American man named as Tom MacMaster who is based in Scotland and studying for a Masters at Edinburgh University.

Whilst we can only sit and wonder what subject he is studying I think we can all be confident that a role in diplomacy may pass him by as he has managed to spark a worldwide campaign to get the woman released only later to reveal the whole thing was a vehicle he created to air his views.

On Sunday, an "apology to readers" appeared on the blog signed by Tom MacMaster who said he was "the sole author of all posts on this blog".

Mr MacMaster, who is on holiday in Turkey, told BBC Scotland in an interview: "I really felt a number of years ago, in discussions on Middle East issues in the US, often when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to someone with my name was: 'Why are you anti-American? Why are you anti-Jewish?'

"So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue."

So Amina, the nom de plume of Tom MacMaster, became the focus of an international media media campaign after a post which was said to be written by Amina's cousin said she had been seized by armed men believed to be members of President Assad's Baath party; and it was all a hoax.

One apology later and the recriminations started to flow toward Mr MacMaster as the full implications of his fictitious blog were unfolding in front of the very audience he had hoped to preach his views too.

MacMaster's assertion "I do not believe that I have harmed anyone" was not met with much sympathy, activists were furious.

Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym for the Damascus editor of GayMiddleEast wrote: "To Mr MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.

"Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina's arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really … Shame on you!!!"

"What a waste of time when we are trying so hard to get news out of Syria," another Damascus activist told the Guardian.

Blogs are meant to entertain, inspire, inform and help people create all manner of content and broadcast it to the world; most of it is irrelevant and no more than personal musings but we accept this when we read them . However what Tom MacMaster created was different, his blog could have have had serious implications for people trying to help Amina and endangered those he was allegedly trying to speak up for.

It is also questionable as to whether his form of speaking out was actually going to benefit anyone; when people support or follow a cause that is close to them they expect the activists they support are real.

And by unwinding Amina back from the kidnap incident and declaring his hand all that Tom MacMaster managed to do was create a backlash from the very people he was trying to give a voice too.

Of course, creating a blog under a pseudonym to conceal an identity is nothing new; perhaps one of the most famous ones was the nom de plume 'Belle De Jour' who wrote her 'Diary of a London Call Girl' which was based on her real life experiences of being a call girl.

Belle De Jour was in fact a pseudonym used to hide the identity of Brooke Magnanti. In November 2009, reportedly fearing her real identity was about to come out, Magnanti revealed her real name and occupation as a child health scientist.

But that case is totally different to the one that Tom MacMaster has created; where as you could cite that the 'Diary of a London Call Girl' had no intention to harm or waste time, the character created by MacMaster was done so solely to help him vent his own opinions in a way that would create the maximum amount of publicity.

So is this unfortunate incident the price we pay for the democratisation of the media? Practising free speech and being able to air our opinions to the world at the touch of a button is one of the truly revolutionary things that has been a product of the internet, but at what cost?

Whereas previous generations of activists had only their placards and the support of some of the world's media to air their campaigns, today activists can now desktop publish their way into the hearts and minds and indeed homes of millions of people simply by pressing enter on their computers.

This is, on the whole, a good thing. The Arab Spring would not be anywhere near as widely reported if were not for the amount of bloggers out there using the social web tools at their disposal to give the world an untarnished view of events in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain to name a few.

We have all seen the reports filed by frustrated journalists who have been taken by government officials in Libya to specially selected areas of interest to help groom worldwide opinion of the Gaddafi regime they are so desperate for us to see. The minute any reporters try to deviate from the selected path they are stopped, their cameras taken and in some cases even beaten up.

No matter how powerful Gaddafi's henchmen are though, they will never be able to silence a population armed with the power of the internet, a computer and a camera phone.

But there will always been the odd one that slips through the net and whilst Tom MacMaster has had his 15 minutes of fame, we can only hope that he has not done untold damage to the reputations of the thousands of bloggers in these regions who are doing extremely valuable work at considerable risk to themselves and telling the world what is happening during these volatile times.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Has Britain Got Bored of Britain's Got Talent?

Once again the internet proves to be the unruly child of the media world that rears up and slaps corporations in the face and then retreats to survey the carnage.

This time Ronan Parke, the 12-year-old who is seen as a hot favourite to win this year's Britain's Got Talent in the series final on Saturday, is at the centre of a storm brewing about whether he has been a product of Syco and groomed for success over the last two years.

Much like the controversy that dogged the last series of X-Factor when Cheryl Cole dodged her vote in what conspiracy theorists said was a direct attempt to manipulate the vote and save the contestant Katie, social networks have sprung into life off the back of an anonymous posting on a blog claiming to be someone from within camp Sony making allegations about the background of Ronan Clarke.

In the case of the X-Factor result, Ofcom said: 'It's unlikely the complaints will be upheld based on the fact the show didn't go against the regulator's rulebook.'

But this is a different situation altogether, with allegations being levelled at SYCO in particular on how they have manipulated both the artist and the show to produce the results that they ultimately want.

Of course none of this is new, scratch beneath the surface of any of these shows and allegations and conspiracies are plentiful and easily found in every corner of the internet.

As with any show of this type, a whole economy springs up alongside it as everyone tries to gain their slice of the pie and cash in on the cash cow that is reality television; the newspapers get the exclusives, the artists get some exposure and maybe a career out of it, the record labels get some sales and if they're lucky a spin off from songs that the artists cover during the show and finally the betting shops also get to cash in.

It is a machine that is very corporate and very much of benefit to the corporations that back these shows in the first place; perhaps the irony of this is that the show's 'undiscovered talent hoping for a break' ethos is a million miles away from the shiny offices and suits that await any winner.

But even the most calculated of corporate marketing initiatives can go horribly wrong; witness Rage Against the Machine's Christmas number 1 in 2009 that kept X Factor winner Joe McElderry's 'The Climb' by 50,000 copies and was seen by many as a slap in the face for Simon Cowell and his cohorts. And just to show that SYCO are all heart, Joe McElderry was recently dropped by the label and last seen heading back to his parents house after seeing his career nose dive back into the obscurity from whence if once came.

Timing is everything though, and as this story takes a grip of the nation and debate rages across the media one question we must be asking ourselves now is are we finally bored of these talent shows and actually more interested in the side shows they produce given that all we see on the screen is perhaps not as we would expect it to be?

If the chance of someone being plucked from obscurity and thrust into the public's eye is all but a creation of illusion by the makers then is the whole point of talent shows now lost in the corporate maze of lawyers and management teams determined to have their way?

One thing that is certain is that irrespective of how true these allegations are, Ronan Parke's career has already started with an unwelcome amount of media attention and his potential value as a commodity to SYCO may already be turning into something of a liability.