In June, the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus came under fire for being a hoax. The blog, which was supposedly written 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.
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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