The story of Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari is fascinating.
Amina, born in the US to an American mother and a Syrian father, grew up spending time in both countries. She “came out” at 26 years of age and shortly after returned to Syria where she taught English and wrote on her blog “A Gay Girl In Damascus”.
Amina was an outspoken advocate for gay rights in the muslim world, women’s right and an articulate critic of the Syrian regime. Because she was politically well-connected in Syria through her father, and a foreign national, she had more freedom to speak out in a country where it was officially illegal to be gay.
Amina saw blogging as a form of civil disobedience. “Blogging is, for me, a way of being fearless,” she wrote. “I believe that if I can be ‘out’ in so many ways, others can take my example and join the movement.”
Evetually, her blogging got Amina into trouble. In May 2011 she was visited by Syrian security forces and, afraid for her safety, she went into hiding. She blogged when she could, moving from house to house with her belongings, and refused to leave Syria and join her mother in Beirut.
In June, 2011 her blog posts abruptly stopped. Shortly after her cousin posted on “A Gay Girl In Damascus” that Amina had been detained by government security forces.
Immediately the internet and kicked into action and an international “Free Amina” media campaign began. There was a Facebook page, front page stories written in reputable newspapers (The Guardian and Washington Post) and the US State Department, responding to the public outcry, launched an investigation into her whereabouts.
A week later the truth was discovered.
Amina didn’t exist. She was a creation of Tom McMaster, a 40 year-old American living in Scotland. McMaster, a Middle East peace activist created the fictional online persona of Amina so that Westerners would listen to and care more about the issues he was so passionate about.
Amina’s story is just one very compelling example of an online phenomenon, known as the Internet Sockpuppet. A sockpuppet is an online identity created for the purposes of deception and it’s a very common practice on the inter-webs.
The majority of the online reviews on Amazon are written by sockpuppets and may, in fact, be worthless. Notable authors were discovered logging in under pseudonyms to either promote their own work or trash their competition. When asked the authors justified the fraud by claiming “Everyone does it”.
Book and music reviews are just the tip of the sockpuppet iceberg. Corporations use sockpuppets to post on financial sites to try to boost their stock prices and governments use sockpuppets to influence public opinion and undermine their opponents. Closer to home, Rob Ford staffer David Price used sockpuppet tactics by calling into a Ford’s Toronto radio show and posting on news stories without identifying who he was.
The story of Amina and of the phenomenon of sockpuppets highlights how incredibly confusing and complex the online world is. In spite of the sanitized interface on our screens, the internet isn’t the tightly controlled world of TV. It’s a much less regulated and unpredictable place with many more questions than answers and lots of scary dark corners.
Children now have internet access almost from birth and parents and educators support and encourage this. Adults are confident that the internet is a positive influence on children or even something that children need. In fact four years ago The United Nations proclaimed that internet access was a human right. Really? Food, water, shelter, safety and YouTube?
The story of Amina shows that what’s found on the internet often isn’t what it seems. If professional journalists can be fooled by a blogger what chance does a seven year-old have? As parents and educators our primary responsibility is to protect the children in our care. I’m less convinced all the time that we’re doing that when we push kids online.