Leone Kraus

LGBT Social Media Ethics: Is That Really You?

Filed By Leone Kraus | August 30, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: A Gay Girl in Damascus, Bill Graber, Lez Get Real, LGBT social media ethics, Tom MacMaster

In June, the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus came under fire for being a hoax. The blog, which was supposedly Tom MacMaster/Amina Abdallah Aref al Omariwritten by a lesbian in Syria and penned under the name Amina Abdallah Arrah, turned out to be a straight man named Tom MacMaster.

Shortly after the bust, others did more digging only to discover that the editor of the popular lesbian blog Lez Get Real was run by man - Bill Graber who used the pseudonym, Paula Brooks.

A fellow Bilerico contributor and I got into a Twitter debate over the Lez Get Real case. I argued that this kind of behavior was damaging to the credibility that we are both trying to build for LGBT media. The contributor argued that this happens all the time in mainstream media and then went on to say that perhaps the reason this individual posed as female was because the readers of the blog would never have been receptive to the posts had they known it was a man.

Perhaps this is true, but I believe that it is unethical to do such.


The intent of this post isn't to regurgitate what you already know about these stories but rather to reflect on why, or even how, something like this can happen. Although social media has benefited us in many ways, it does come with its setbacks. Social media has advanced so quickly that few guidelines have been created to determine what is and isn't ethical behavior for online content. It is important to think about and discuss the ethics surrounding the creation of content online.

Social Media's Role in the Ease of Content Creation

Social media has made it possible for people like you and me to be content creators, meaning that we are able to create our own blogs, Facebook fan pages, Twitter accounts, etc. and then disseminate the content we produce across the web. However, the fact that anyone can do this gives online content a wide range of accuracy, while also opening the door to inaccuracies.

While often attempting to be like journalism, true journalists and news sources pride themselves on accuracy and fact-checking. Furthermore, a hired journalist not only has made an idealistic career choice, but is often trained about the ethics in journalism. The identity of a journalist is known, and the facts, in most cases, are vouched for by the news organization for which they work. This is fundamentally different for bloggers and online content, where a pen name can be adopted, an identity can be manufactured, like in the cases of A Gay Girl In Damascus and Lez Get Real.

What is Ethical?

According to Dictionary.com the word 'Ethics' means:

1. a system of moral principles

2. the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.

3. moral principles, as of an individual

4. that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

The definition of 'ethics' then leads us to question what is and isn't ethical behavior via social media. Is hiding your true identity on social platforms like blogs and Facebook unethical? Is using a false identity to lead your business unethical? What about a pen name?

In the case of Tom MacMaster, I came across this post on Muslim Media Watch, which is a site for Muslim women to critique how their images are used in the media. Samya, the author of the post, "Why Did Tom MacMaster Choose to be 'a Gay Girl' Blogging from Damascus?" writes in her critique of the story:

"The Arab world has found great fulfillment in social media. In Saudi Arabia, they are organizing Facebook campaigns to campaign for the right to drive. Women in Egypt are asserting bolder and more forthcoming attitudes in the context of the revolution through social media. Virtual space is turning into the new arena for Arab women's articulation of their identities in the 21st century.

The tragedy of the MacMaster hoax is that it shows how social media, long glorified as tools of empowerment for Arab women, could be used to bring more havoc on Arab women's reputations. Currently, there are no legal mechanisms that might be enforced to hold MacMaster accountable for his abominable act. For the benefit of the doubt, the case should be taken only as an individual conduct that would certainly provoke condemnations, even in the West. But the MacMaster case should give rise to more serious global regulations to ensure that the Web, widely acclaimed as a window of opportunity for women aspiring for social and political advancement, would not be used for extortion and defamation."

When is It Okay to Provide a False Identity

To counter the above, there are instances where hiding your social identity is important. Social media scholar danah boyd discussed those who chose to use different names on social networking sites, including members of the LGBT community, sex workers, rape victims, abuse survivors among others in one of her recent blog posts.

The use of pseudonyms to protect one's identity for their own safety and security is an example of ethical social media behavior. Perhaps these people want to get their stories out in order to reach others who may be affected, or inspired, by their stories but are not in a position of safety to reveal their true identity. Or they could simply want people to just listen to serve as ears to their stories. Alternatively, there may be people who use a pen name just for the sake of their own privacy, or perhaps because anonymity adds to their writing in some way, such that people who follow their posts focus more on the content than the identity of the writer.

Abusing Power

On the other hand, actively misleading your audience, whether it is to drive popularity and page views for your site, or some other reason, seems to me to be unethical. There are many reasons that this could be harmful, and one can imagine the possibilities and unexpected consequences of such an action.

For example, using such an identity could imbue a person's writing with a credibility that isn't deserved, misleading an audience to take actions that they would not have otherwise, such as giving money to false people or organizations, becoming concerned and nearly wasting resources on a person that does not exist, taking risky or dangerous actions, or in the cases discussed above, having untoward consequences for the demographic of person being depicted, particularly if one is using a voice that is already a minority and in danger for that fact.

As someone who is in a position to write and create content for others to read, I believe that it is important that I present myself in a way that is ethical. As social media continues to grow and evolve, we should all continue to consider the implications of our actions and posts, and consider the ethics of our content.

Read the entire "Lez Get Real" story at The Bilerico Project:

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Beg pardon, but I have to note the inconsistency here since it presents itself so very obviously.

Perhaps you'll help in resolving this:

You wrote:

On the other hand, actively misleading your audience, whether it is to drive popularity and page views for your site, or some other reason, seems to me to be unethical.

This is in the third to last paragraph.

However, preceeding that, you wrote:

Perhaps these people want to get their stories out in order to reach others who may be affected, or inspired, by their stories but are not in a position of safety to reveal their true identity. Or they could simply want people to just listen to serve as ears to their stories. Alternatively, there may be people who use a pen name just for the sake of their own privacy, or perhaps because anonymity adds to their writing in some way, such that people who follow their posts focus more on the content than the identity of the writer.

All of those are "other reasons".

Indeed, within just the context of what you describe above (and without acting as an apologist, but simply to point out the inconsistent understanding here), both of the writers you noted cited some of those "other reasons" for using a pseudonym.

Anonymity, in both cases, added to the interest in their posts. Neither were in positions of safety should they have revealed themselves (as demonstrated by the ensuing backlash that sparked your conversation).

So you are saying that the reasons they did it are both ethical and unethical. Contradicting statements, which leaves them in the liminal space and leaves the issue unresolved.

If you don't mind my suggesting such, it may not have been the use of pseudonyms that created the ethical conflict.


Thanks for taking the time to comment Antonia.

Both of the sentences you're pulling from in the post are from different sections with different headers. One section refers and links to danah boyd, who is a prominent social scholar on situations where it is understandable, and very much needed to remain anonymous online. The other is a counter to that, which talks about ways in which some use social media as an abuse of power.

As I noted to another commenter below, I think the Amina/Tom MacMaster case went too far. A resident from the state of Georgia penned a blog, that was not labeled as fiction, about living life as a gay girl in Syria. It was not until the kidnapping that he so eloquently wrote about that major news networks began to pick up and follow the story. Shortly after, it was discovered that it was all a hoax but again, this writing as never labeled as fiction. I think that this is an example of how one abuses the free flow of information across social media.

You can read more about this case on Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amina_Abdallah_Arraf_al_Omari

Wikipedia may not be the best source for information but it can certainly connect you to a lot of great resources.


I do agree more ethical behavior should be expected in social media. It is also true one should only use false identity when truly necessary.

The problem is however that society as a whole has created a free exchange source, the internet, and it depends upon an individuals honor code. Many are honorable but many are also not. Unless you begin a system to hold them accountable and thus violate privacy and free speech then the only true solution is educating society as a whole.

Simply live by example and demand accountability.

Thanks for taking the time to comment T. I couldn't agree with your comment more.

I very much agree with Antonia on this last point.

it may not have been the use of pseudonyms that created the ethical conflict.

The issue of whether one uses their "real" name (and what criteria is used to determine which name is real) is a completely separate issue from creating a completely different and false persona. If Tom MacMaster had written under the name Mack Thomson and Bill Graber wrote under the name Billy the Kid or Anonymous Hamster, they would still have been anonymous or using fake names without causing any of the conflict that erupted.

Looking solely to the issue of writer under an assumed identity as opposed to writing under an assumed name, there are still plenty of ethical elements to ponder.

Historically, many women have written under male personas because sexism prevented them from being published or being read as women. That is usually considered ethically okay. But note the difference. In those cases, the topics of their writing was not the exploits and experiences of being a man. They did not position themselves as experts in an area based on personal experiences they did not actually have.

An additional distinction may be the difference in power dynamics between different identities. When a person from an oppressed group passes themselves off as a member of the dominant group, they are attempting to avoid the impacts of oppression on their writing. When someone with privilege pretends to be oppressed, it is typically out of a fascination, exotification, and/or sensalization of the oppressed group.

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment Tobi.

It was not the use of pseudonyms that is the concern but rather the people they purported to be. For instance, Tom MacMaster, a man from Georgia pretended to be a lesbian in Syria.

I'm not arguing against the use of pseudonyms. I'm suggesting that it may be an unethical use of social media to present yourself as someone completely different as a way to attract an audience. In MacMaster's case, it was not until it was revealed that he was writing as Amina, that he labeled his blog as fiction. Before the story broke, Amina's blog was followed as factual news, and the community was responding. A few of the hyperlinks above connect you to this unfolding story.

I did not do anything Ben Franklin did not do... so give it a rest already.

Ethics huh? did Bil happen to mention the first item on his agenda we talked in June was try to shake me down for my contact list?

And seeing how Bridg and Linda just did major redesign on LGR... I have to wonder and the ethical timing of this post as well....

Thanks for taking the time to comment. A couple things, first, my graduate thesis is on ethics in social media, so you are going to be hearing about this very topic quite a bit. Secondly, I didn't realize that 'Lez Get Real' launched a redesigned site, as I've only visited the site a handful of times. I actually came across this story via The Washington Post, which I then immediately pinged Bil, who let me know they were about to launch their own content of the story.

This is a topic that means a lot to me and I'm sure there are others out there who, like yourself, are using online media to purport to be someone that they're not. The great thing about ethics is that we can choose for ourselves what is and isn't ethical. The post above just highlights what I think is unethical as it pertains to social media and the creation of content. For you, what is considered ethical is different.

As we, online content creators, move forward, we need to begin to think and have a real discussion about ethical guidelines.

There are way more out there doing what I did then you can even realize...

I really view Paula Brooks as more of a Donnie Brasco type character. She was constructed to get in, learn, and then use what she had learned to become an agent for change. Like Brasco, Paula had a cover legend so she could do the job I wanted her to do.

This “legend” allowed her unquestioned free access to the community she was working in. She could collect her information and then after fleshing out the tips, present that information as credible news items. She was always taking notes.

In the course of her 3 year run, she also managed to establish well placed contacts in the DoD, two Senatorial, and three house campaigns, all the Capitol Hill offices that mattered, plus the White House Press Office.

She was, as well, able to develop some very good contacts at a major cable news network.

The same “legend” also allowed her entry into the political discussions affecting the LGBT community and she was able to credibly present information in a way that had real effect on the ongoing political discussions involving LGBT rights and in particular, the repeal of DADT.

As a cautionary note, we should all be glad Paula’s chosen cause was LGBT rights. Had she been a North Korean spy fishing around for defense secrets, she would have been very successful, because there were always plenty of people willing to give her information she was looking for.

Let me try that again....Ethics huh? Did Bil happen to mention the first item on his agenda when we talked in June was to try to shake me down for my contact list?

And seeing how Bridg and Linda just did major redesign and rebuild on LGR... I have to wonder about the ethical timing of this post as well....

Om Kalthoum | August 30, 2011 9:36 PM

What is it about this creep Bill Graber that he doesn't have the good taste to get lost after being exposed? He must be some sick-o.

Nor will he ever "get lost".... as an unashamed capitalist... he is doing what any good capitalist would do.... he is writing a book on the whole story.

How does this compare to the Silence Dogood? letters by Ben Franklin? That was the social media of the time.