For the past week or so my Twitter feed has lit up with two stories: the unmasking of “Gay Girl In Damascus,” who turns out to be a 40-year-old white heterosexual guy from Atlanta currently studying in Edinburgh, and the disappearance of Lauren Spierer, a very real 20-year-old from Greenburgh, NY, who has been studying at the University of Indiana. How different these circumstances, and, yet, how well both illustrate the power of social media.
The first, the so-called Amina, was actually an invention of social media. Eager to combat what he misreads in our society as “liberal Orientalism” (yes, this Tom MacMaster fellow has evidently turned the pages of Edward Said’s influential—and I believe wrongly reasoned—book, Orientalism, but not much understood their content), MacMaster drew out a character, an American-born gay girl living in Damascus who claimed that she was the victim of more overt hatred when she appeared in America wearing a hijab than when she announced her sexual proclivity in Syria, a country under the thumb of a brutal dictator where homosexuality is against the law. He created a blog for her. When this character “Amina” was supposedly kidnapped (MacMaster said he wanted to end the blog), the Twittersphere went nuts. The American government got involved—she was, after all, supposedly half American. The FBI quickly concluded she didn’t exist, never had. The Twittersphere dragged it out for days and days more until they had final, conclusive evidence that no one had ever seen her or spoken to her voice-to-voice. MacMaster, not the most devious hoaxster, was easy to track down. He hadn’t even masked his IP address account. Everything could be traced to him.
Lauren is a real flesh and blood American girl. There’s no doubt she exists. I knew her when she was a child. She has a mom, a dad, a sister. She seems to have a lot of friends, and in the days since she’s gone missing, has amassed 20,000 “virtual” friends, people who are following the progress of the search on Facebook and Twitter. I am furious with the lawyers of some of the young men considered “people of interest” who have underscored that Lauren was drinking the night (morning) she disappeared, who have emphasized that she liked to party with boys. Oy, that’s what young people do these days. And I wish they didn’t. I wish they were playing chess or something else. But they’re not. And it’s so wrong to blame the victim.
At the beginning of the Find Lauren ordeal, I was struck by the professionalism of the person running the @NewsOnLaurenS Twitter account. She managed to get the most information into 140 characters or less—leaving room for retweets. She attached photos of Lauren, of the “missing” poster. She “live-blogged” the press conferences. She had a good hashtag (#FindLauren). She had a wonderful voice and a positive manner that has remained appropriate as we got past the 48-hours missing, one-week missing, and other timeline milestones. She had the good idea of contacting celebrities and asking them to retweet—and many did. Eventually all the major news organizations picked up the story. I asked my daughter who this person could be, and she conjectured a friend of Lauren or Rebecca (Lauren’s older sister, my daugher’s friend). When the Twitter-Master seemed to be having some problems setting up a feed blog, I contacted her. She described herself as, “just a woman from Indiana with some experience with social media, but nothing like this.” She is a true heroine of the digital age.
One thing about the social media community: they’re often generous with their time and knowledge. So when I contacted two ultra-super-amazing social media geniuses I know, Mo Krochmal (@Krochmal) and Amy Vernon (@amyvernon), they both came up with blogging solutions, and for Lauren’s Twitter manager, one of them worked.
The Facebook community that grew up with a page begun by Lauren’s friends quickly devolved into disaster. People expounded theories, called each other names, talked about other crimes. It provided very little real information about Lauren—though it did give people a place to vent and a space to offer love and support to her family. I’m not overlooking the importance of that. But it became too much drama, and to counteract that group (which I exited), her parents had someone set up a page where people could not leave comments and would only give information. But there is no information.
The parallels between the real girl and the fake girl have been bugging me for days. While people were using social media to seek real clues about Lauren, those burrowing into the Amina story were, in my opinion, largely navel gazing. Yes, MacMaster did something potentially harmful. The Syrian government now claims all anti-Syrian blogs are “false” in one way or another. He possibly also endangered the gay/lesbian community in Syria as they revealed themselves in comments on the “Gay Girl in Syria” blog. MacMaster stole the identity of a beautiful young English woman by scraping her Facebook page for photos. And, reportedly, he stole the heart of a Canadian woman with whom he exchanged flirtatious and sexually explicit emails. Compared to MacMaster, Anthony Weiner was dialing 411. Sadly, he is bound to make money off of this, something he says in a Skype interview with The Guardian that he deserves (Gay Girl in Damascus hoaxer: I did it out of vanity – video | World news | guardian.co.uk http://bit.ly/jQeQdz). But the efforts to ferret all this out—what do you have in the end? A lying asshole, a Syrian government as repressive as ever (and horribly uncaring and cynical, opening their border with Israel to “protestors” who will, of course, be repelled by some means eventually violent and thus deflect attention away from a government killing children), a woman with a broken heart? And a social media community that knows it was punked.
To those Twitter people involved with the Arab Spring and Middle East news, people with many followers who took the time to retweet Lauren’s information, thank you. And those of you who did not, to borrow Charlene Spierer’s words, “Shame on you.” You especially know the import of crowd sourcing. At this time, I believe, the police in Bloomington are trying to ID a car. Someone out there saw something, and perhaps a tweet, a link to a poster can help jog a memory of something half seen, not considered important then, but . . . . .
The hours tick by and reporters are still talking about Amina and those who “uncovered” the hoax are speaking to interested audiences. Go away, Amina. You never existed. Lauren Spierer does, and her family wants her back. Sure, maybe Lauren doesn’t have the social significance of a “Gay Girl in Syria” blogging about the revolution. Lauren just wanted to go into fashion. Have fun. Be a young person. She also probably wanted to grow up and have a job she loved and a husband and kids. Normal stuff that wouldn’t have changed the world, except for those who love her. Lauren would never have made this kind of social media splash, except that she went missing.
The woman doing the Twitter—she’s heroic and clever, linking the feed to the Twitter trending map. That’s also wishful thinking because, as the time draws out and the police have nothing new to say, fewer people will turn out for the searches, fewer people will spread the word. The news cycle is changing. Amina is hanging on, but Lauren might disappear from the public consciousness. And that’s why it’s so important that someone right now turns up something important so that the media refocuses its spotlight on Lauren.
I have no tips except:
- Use Facebook or Twitter to get the message out. For information, go to Twitter.com and search #FindLauren or @NewsOnLaurenS.
- Or just google Lauren Spierer. Email her picture and information about the reward and contacts to everyone you know. And people you don’t know.
- Join Facebook or Twitter. Something like Lauren’s disappearance is a great argument for the importance of social media to people of all ages. A friend in Israel wrote to me, “your family is my family,” and then reposted my last blog about Lauren. (Oh, Ellen, what great values you have.) Yes, this is especially poignant to those of use who are parents and grandparents. Both Twitter and Facebook have enough tutorials so you can probably join yourself. Remember that google will lead you to VIDEO tutorials. And soon, when I have time, I’ll do a Baby Boomer special rundown so that soon we’ll all be tweeting. My dream: in our Twitter feeds now and then a young blond will turn up, saying something like, “Just had the best burger ever.” Earth moving news. Because we’ll know she’s alive.
Finally, please leave your comments.