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Another week goes by, another impetus for everyone to fret about identity online. In this case, as the New York Times puts it, " ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ Blogger Admits to Writing Fiction Disguised as Fact." Turns out the gay Syrian blogger writing about oppressive conditions there was: not gay, not Syrian, and not there.
In a telephone interview with The Lede on Monday morning, Mr. MacMaster, who is currently in Turkey, said, “I sort of by accident… created something that had a lot more interest than I had ever possibly expected and then when I tried to shut it down it just kept getting bigger.” He explained that he had initially created Amina, his Arab lesbian character, as “a handle” he would use when he wanted to contribute comments to online discussions. His aim, he said was to use the character to present “a perspective that doesn’t often get heard on the Middle East and that was also a challenge for me, as somebody who has aspirations as a novelist, to write in a voice of a character who is absolutely not me.”
I was not following this blog but had heard some buzz about it, especially after an entry was posted asserting that "Amina" had been taken by Syrian security forces. From what I've been able to quickly piece together, Andy Carvin (the amazing @acarvin on Twitter - doing really innovative work as a senior strategist at NPR) was key to surfacing the truth. Here's one NPR story about it. You can scan his twitter stream for more links and conversation.
This isn't the first Internet pseudonym that got out of hand. In this case, even the U.S. State Department was involved. The most interesting post I've read about the whole thing so far (before the blogger's entry was revealed) was an exploration of pseudonymity and repression by Zeynep Tufeckci. A snippet:
[T]here is no technologically-assured safety for a dissident in a repressive-enough regime. The only safety is visibility, public attention, sometimes international attention and numbers everywhere–in and out of the country. As I have been arguing, a state is a resource-constrained actor. It is not possible for an autocracy to remain stable and arrest a million people. They can certainly arrest a few; they can shed the blood of large numbers. However, the first option they can exercise while preserving stability; the latter requires destabilization which is not what most dictators are longing for. To get that safety in numbers, however, there needs to be political activity in spaces where there are numbers and where the regimes find it harder to flood the place with misinformation, trolls, “sockpuppets” –like the type apparently the Defense Department considered using in weaponized form, I kid you not—and the like. And both real names and online-offline integration guard against these threats and help provide numbers but at the expense of the safety of the activists.
This is a reverse tragedy of the commons. Tragedy of commons is when everyone does what is in their best interest, the commons suffers. (For example, if everyone cheats on their taxes, everyone gets hurts because crumbling infrastructure is bad for everyone). This is the opposite case: to raise awareness, to organize, to oppose regimes, activists are best directed to spaces where pseudonimity is fairly minimal and online/offline integration is high; which, of course, makes it easier for the state to find them. Thus, this is the tragedy of the individual and a reverse tragedy of commons; what is good for the commons is dangerous and potentially deadly for the activist.
The whole essay is worth reading. I am still firmly with those who believe that pseudonymity and anonymity are perfectly legitimate modes of self-expression. This post a few months back by Nathan Jurgensen explains that sniffing dismissively about "multiple identities on the Internet" being somehow bad is a big ol' marker of privilege.
the problems associated with displaying a single self in front of multiple populations is not “mutually” the same for all. Just as WikiLeaks or protestors often use anonymity to counter repressive and/or powerful regimes, we know that anonymity is also used by the most vulnerable and least powerful on the personal level as well. Jarvis misses the important variables of power and inequalities in his analysis.
Having a stigmatized and not always accepted identity can bring much conflict and pain if one displays the same to everyone. Fellow Cyborgology editor PJ Rey makes this point powerfully when he asks, “Have We Built a Society without Closets?” Take, for example, a gay teenager who cannot display their “real” self without fear of being financially and emotionally undermined by their parents. [...] It is easy to argue for people to be “real” when their “real” identity is widely accepted. As danah boyd stated, “Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what’s best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what’s best for the privileged class.”
So, as usual, when it comes humans, there are no easy answers. And anyone wringing their hands about what the Internet hath wrought is misplacing their anxiety. Derek Powazek recently drafted a short manifesto about how the Internet is not trying to hurt you. He was responding to Bob Garfield's anti-Internet presumptions (some background), but I think several of Powazek's points are relevant to some of these deep questions about identity and manifestation of self and social good. One key thing to remember:
People are messy. The technology we invent is messy, too. Deal with it.