Middle East — 13 June 2011
Tom MacMaster, “Amina Arraf” & CentCom

What does a Syrian blog, a PhD student in Scotland, and the American Military Central Command (CentCom) have in common?

The news that a Syrian activist blogger, who happened to also be female, was in fact an American graduate student based in Scotland has been greeted with reactions generally falling between dismay and distaste at the betrayal felt by the followers of the blog. The author Tom MacMaster who created the online personality “Amina Abdallah Aral al Omari” or “Amina Arraf” has been engaged in a series of interviews and explanations since being exposed as a fraud, clearly remorseful since being caught out for his deception which appears to have gone beyond anything he anticipated when he began to blog.

The blog itself was generally referred to in English language and Western news sources such as the Guardian, CNN and al-Jazeera english. The whole concept behind the blog did not appear to be serious or even remotely credible, and the apparent uptake by media was more likely a case of journalists believing what they want to hear. It is probable that anyone with a discerning attitude could have quickly spotted that the blog was a fraud, but it seems in this case a combination of the lack of the ability to report from the ground in Syria combined with a willingness to suspend disbelief in the hope of having found an unlikely heroine in the “liberated Arab woman” that they could root for led to MacMaster being able to maintain the pretense. That is, until he decided to go on vacation – leading to the necessity of somehow getting rid of his alternative persona.

All this may be somewhat interesting, and there is probably plenty to say about the interplay between Western media and liberal Orientalist conceptions of the Middle East, though it seems unlikely the post-justification given by McMaster should be taken too seriously.

But in this case there is a related issue to this which is more important as highlighted by a report in the Guardian which revealed that the United States military has plans for a spy operation that would manipulate social media. This was to be done through the development of software that would allow multiple fake online personas to be created and used by military personnel in an attempt to push American propaganda across the internet. The report stated that:

“A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world”

In other words, what Tom MacMaster was doing is for all intents and purposes what the US military is planning to do in the future, but with greater efficiency and impact. However, as the Guardian also reports, Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks made it clear that no interventions would be in English since it would be unlawful to “address US audiences” with such technology. Rather, they would be aimed at Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto speaking audiences, with the aim to “to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US”. (Yet another case of one rule for us…..)

With mainstream media such as CNN and others having been given a taste of the medicine their government intends to employ upon others, and being shown how wrong it can go when exposed (as fraudulent behavior in such issues which require knowledge of the location, cultural environment and detailed understanding of the situation on the ground are more open to), perhaps there will now be a mainstream media campaign in America against the use of such technology being deployed to deceive others. Or perhaps not.

In the end this is actually irrelevant – because what the MacMaster fiasco surely shows is that such propaganda is a highly risky business, and by driving attention away from what is really happening in Syria, which is a horrific story in its own right, he has undermined any awareness he was hoping to create (if that was his intention). Such experience points to the fact that the American propaganda tools are going to be counter-productive, especially as they are going to be trying to convince native audiences who are bound to recognise the authentic from the crass fraudster. As pointed out clearly in another piece “It’s appallingly stupid, for there’s little doubt that the fakes will be unmasked. The net result of that will be the diminution, not the enhancement, of American credibility.” However, a particular action or strategy being appalling stupid has not stopped the Americans before. The fact that they are considering such tactics in the first place shows that they haven’t grasped the simple fact that it is not the perception of their foreign policy that is the problem – it is the actual foreign policy that is the problem.

At the same time – the issue will add to the debate of exactly how far the uprisings have been driven by the internet, rather than the internet simply being the communication ground for a few involved with most participants on the street having little or no connection to the social media. Just as the Egyptian uprising saw the media give exposure to favourites amongst various Westernised bloggers and twitter activists who ultimately have little traction amongst the masses, “Amina Arraf” simply served as another face of a revolution that the media was happy to promote irrespective of credibility. This is the recurring media theme of the various uprisings – to try to promote a secular, liberal narrative in what is an ill-informed attempt to direct or at least influence the direction of the post-revolutionary landscape. And just like this event shows – much fewer people in the region are affected or concerned than in the West, especially given they are dealing with the reality on the ground rather than the virtual landscape.

 

Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and also blogs at rezapankhurst.net.

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