Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Internet Hoaxes

I didn't know about this until a journalist from Politiken.dk called me today, to ask how I felt about it. It's the blog of a man with a deep interest in the middle east, who has been writing online as a homosexual woman from Damascus. He has now let people know that he is the one who pretended to be Amina, the Sunni lesbian, and he apologises to his readers.

This is an interesting story, and I can see why journalists are taken with it. It has a tittilating touch of slightly deviant sex, it underlines the importance of confirmed sources (that middle-east blogger you admired might be an american male), and it reflects the myths about how people behave online as they are expressed in this rather well-worn cartoon:

However, it's not the first internet hoax that's gone viral. One of the first online gender hoaxes to be reported was the alleged gender swap of Sanford Lewin, reported by Allucquere Rosanne Stone.
Cut to New York, 1982. The multiple user social environments written for the large, corporate-owned, for-pay systems betray none of their origins in low culture. They do not contain objects, nor can objects be constructed within them. They are thoroughly sanitized, consisting merely of bare spaces within which interactions can take place. They are the Motel 6 of virtual systems. Such an environment is the CB chat line on CompuServe. It was on the CB chat line on CompuServe that a New York psychiatrist named Sanford Lewin opened an account.

Sanford Lewin, according to the story, experimented with a female name, only to discover that the information he got access to as a female was very different from what he learned as a male. The parallels between Sanford Lewin and Tom MacMaster are interesting.

From Stone's description of Lewin's actions:

Actually, Lewin was getting nervous too. Apparently he'd never expected the impersonation to succeed so dramatically. He thought he'd make a few contacts online, and maybe offer some helpful advice. What had happened instead was that he'd found himself deeply engaged in developing a whole new part of himself that he'd never known existed. His responses had long since ceased to be a masquerade; with the help of the narrow bandwidth online mode and a certain amount of textual prosthetics, online he had @italic Joan. She no longer simply carried out his wishes at the keyboard; she had her own emergent personality, her own ideas, her own directions. Not that he was losing his own identity, but he was developing a parallel one, one of considerable puissance. Jekyll and Joan. As her friendships deepened and simultaneously the imposture began to unravel, Lewin began to realize the enormity of his deception.

And the simplicity of the solution.

Joan had to die.

From Tom MacMaster's apology:

Amina kept growing. And I kept trying to ‘kill’ her. Her story was great; I can easily write in Amina’s voice because I know her like she was a real person. I know what she likes and what she dislikes, how she feels and what makes her angry or elates her.

It was a terrible time suck but it was fun. And, regularly, I tried to stop. Amina moved overseas, she dropped out of sight repeatedly and so on and so forth. I meant to stop her … but is was hard. I’d read news stories and I’d find myself fighting the urge to respond as Amina … and occasionally giving in.

Some of MacMaster's latest posts before the hoax was revealed points towards a final disappearance for Amina. She is about to "die" and she won't be the first online fictional character to go that way.In 2001 Kaycee Nicole died after fighting leukemia for two years. Or rather - the character was killed off by it's creator, the woman pretending to be Kaycee Nicole and her mother.
The whole operation was the work of a Kansas housewife, Debbie Swenson. Posing as both Kaycee and her mother, Swenson had started by constructing an online personality, but it spiralled into an increasingly complex deception as the diary became ever more popular. Once her cover was blown, she revealed the truth quickly with one final diary entry

The case even created a new diagnosis, Münchausen by internet. By pretending to be a beautiful, brave, struggling young woman, Swenson got attention and was listened to and admired. It's heady stuff.

The stories of hoaxes and gender-swapping online are legion, and some of them lead to court cases, such as the story of two women, where one of them pretended to be a fire-man. This story caused a divorce, but before it could lead to a new marriage, the fire fighter died of cancer - apparently a very popular death online.

However, sometimes you may have a good reason to become somebody else. Perhaps you need to hide your identity, because what you are talking about could have you punished, either socially or as a criminal. If so, you need to take the advice on how to fake your identity online to heart. It is pretty easy to cross-check online identities, and it's hard to fake it in the long run. Kaycee Nicole was revealed as a hoax when Swenson leaked too much and too strong information about her "real" identity. When you know where somebody goes to school, what sports they are in, how old they are, what languages they know, where they travel, the jobs of their parents, the names of their friends - then you start having a lot of information to go on, if you want to find their real selves.

Doing research online, I reveal who and what I am when I start using the people I encounter for research. In gaming communities, where identity swapping is pretty accepted and expected, revealing that much about yourself is often frowned at. In one guild I was told "that information will immediately reveal your name!" by a friend, when I gave out some key-words for one of my articles in guild chat. Other researchers choose not to reveal their identity in such situations, claiming the information they gain will be more authentic if they don't stand out as researchers. There are good arguments for both views.

This leads us back to the hoaxes. What is a hoax, in this case? It's obvious that when you start taking money, when you cause so much disturbance in another person's life that they grieve your death, when people start organising to assist you in a fake crisis, then you have gone too far. But it's hard to notice where that point is. If you have managed to build a personae - when you have gone from anonymity to pseudonymity - it is hard to let go of the voice you gained. An internet identity is so strong that the identification can cause you to feel raped, even if nobody ever touched you, as Julian Dibbell describes in one of the articles that influenced my own research online: A Rape in Cyberspace.

We are still asking ourselves who we are, online. As a research field it wasn't exhausted on the nineties. It's worth noting though that despite the potential for being another, keeping a good alternate personae running is a challenge. It's hard work, and you need to be extremely good not to trip up. It's far easier, and far more common to just be a somewhat edited version of yourself. Perhaps a bit younger, a bit thinner, a bit richer - it's so easy, and nobody are harmed...


Klepsacovic said...

When is a fake identity okay? If I write stories about my life as an octopus, then no one can reasonably be misled and think they are real. So that's okay. What if I instead write about myself, but I slow down a bit, write more carefully, clean up my language, and act more politely than I would in real life? That's surely another identity. But how often do we complain about that sort of thing?

It's the credibility, or authenticity, that matters. I may lie about any detail of my life, as long as none of those details are relevant to my story. So in the case of the not-a-Syrian-lesbian blogger, the lesbian Syrian part is part of the story. It gives the impression of being personally part of it, not merely sharing opinion, but experience.

I can write all I want about how much I think the Holocaust was bad, or any other opinion. But if I were to say I was a Jewish survivor, or a German at the time, then that is wrong.

Sorry if I meandered a bit, but this was such a fascinating read I barely knew where to start thinking about it.

eastgatesystems@mac.com said...

I don't understand why one would need a "diagnosis" of "Münchausen by internet". How would one distinguish this from any fiction writer who inflicts difficulties upon her characters?

Klepsacovic is right that it's wrong to assume an identity, but surely every writer who uses the first person writes "Call me Ishmael" or "I was born in 1632 in the city of York, of a good family tho' not of that country" even though the writer is not, in fact, the survivor or a shipwreck.