This was the third year for Matt Locke’s The Story mini-conference, held in London’s Humanist Conway Hall on 17th February, but the first time for me, who’d only found out about last year’s event way too late. ‘To thine own self be true’ is the Shakespearean quote written above the stage and it perfectly matched my opinion of the event (if you shift the meaning a bit). The day was packed with nuggets of thought provoking quality, but I’d like to focus on one particular talk that resonated with me.
It relates to our recent work at Team Cooper towers as we can glean some kind of learning from others’ experience and it justifies my ticket and a day’s beano off to London.
This interesting and relevant talk was delivered by Liz Henry and was called ‘Fake Lesbians All the Way Down’ didn’t sound the most immediately relevant, but very interesting anyway as Henry dove off into the murky world of fake internet lesbians. This traced the story of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’, a blogger who had apparently been taken by Syrian authorities, due to homosexuality being a crime there. Henry took up the cause of the girl, Amina Arraf, as the story was picked up by the major news agencies. Doubts soon surfaced as Henry looked more deeply into the blog posts and Amina’s previous online activity. The full tale of the investigation is too complex to properly cover here but it is a fascinating tale. It emerges that not only was Amina Arraf a fictional character created by a 40 year old man, but that many of the people who were in contact with her and promoted her were also fake lesbians, such as the one who ran a prominent web site, all apparently unaware of each other’s real identities. This all made me feel sorry for Amina’s apparently real girlfriend, who had only ever communicated with her online due to convenient blackouts and the like preventing phone conversation.
Thus far it all seems a fairly harmless, if quirky, piece of role-play. Until you look at the effects that it has. Henry displayed a book call ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’ by Joanna Russ, whose topic is self evident and can be extended to all kinds of minority representation. The man behind Amina, Tom MacMaster, claimed he was helping to give a voice to others in need – his argument ran that in impersonating a persecuted woman in another country he was able to provide a voice for those who could not speak out. Yet in creating a fake voice he was helping to undermine and drown-out any real voices, he provided detractors with a whole slew of arguments that could be used to ignore and discredit any similar but truthful blog by casting doubt upon its authenticity.
The scale at which the fake story was transmitted around the media and then consumed by the public amplifies the damage. This happened due to the presentation of the fictional but ‘based on true events’ tale in which real life, which is messy, convoluted and often incoherent is simplified, streamlined and made to fit a dramatic arc or, in this case, suppositions woven into a story. This distorts reality, yet is more palatable for mass consumption despite the events it portrays no longer being true. In turn this version is easier to broadcast and becomes preferable to any other messy and ambiguous yet true tale, so becomes the perceived truth, leaving the real truth in the dark. What would have been the tale if Amina had been a real person yet has also spent her time exposing others to the authorities to look after herself? No longer a clear cut case, but full of the ambiguities that make life real.
The issue struck a chord with me with the work we’ve recently been doing with Safe@Last and the The Railway Children to create a game which tells the story of a young person navigating through life’s choices and temptations. This raises questions of accurate representations of real life in a dramatic fashion for people who actually live in that world. We certainly struggled to create a believable, if stylized world and the issue of fitting reality into a limited game frame is always an issue. The project is due to be released soon; I’d really like some feedback on how you think we did. It’s such a great opportunity to do work that can do good and it’s important to make sure it has the right effect.
It’s important because the effect of the Amina mis-representation was a silence on the internet, not on the issue of the fake blogger, but from anyone who might be in a similar (but real life) situation to Amina. The fake story made people distrust any true story, and any potential real-life bloggers didn’t want to publish anything because they couldn’t trust their online friends. Silence – denying any chance of a voice for the voiceless.