On Sock Puppets and Best Practices

How far should news outlets go to verify bloggers’ identities?

After some impressive detective work by several journalists, it was revealed early this week that Amina Arraf, the supposed author of blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” was a fictional character created by a forty-year-old straight man in Scotland.

Tom MacMaster, a sometime fantasy novelist, had created an elaborate online life for Amina over several years—recently garnering the most amount of attention and concern for “Amina” by describing her kidnapping from her town in Syria. The next day, the editor of the lesbian website Lez Get Real, which had frequently published Amina’s writing, also turned out to be a fake. “Paula Brooks” was actually a fifty-eight-year-old construction worker in Ohio named Bill Graber.

The particulars of these two gentlemen’s motives and methods aside, the episode reminds us anew of the perils of relying on unknown sources for story tips and information. The Guardian was fooled. So were many more. The main culprit himself, MacMaster, says he was able to get away with the hoax thanks to the media’s “superficial” coverage of the Middle East. But, as the AP’s Jill Lawless points out, Amina’s story was especially tempting because of the context surrounding it:

For readers hungry for news of the uprisings sweeping the Arab world, it was gold dust—a gripping, firsthand account of a country from which most foreign journalists are excluded.

For stories like this, where firsthand information is at a premium, it’s inevitable that the media will rely on blogs and Twitter for whatever updates we can get—see Andy Carvin’s curatorial Retweeting, and Sohab Athar’s accidental account of the bin Laden raid in Pakistan. And it might be impractical to demand direct phone interviews (IP addresses? birth certificates?) of every online author. So where does that leave us? What should be our best practices when it comes to using information found on blogs for news articles? And what about for news organizations’ aggregation blogs—do those have different standards?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.