Civic fictions – the opportunities and limits of online personas

technology / Article

When is it OK to create an online persona – and when is it wrong?

The answer varies, depending on whether the alternative persona is for works of fiction or deception, for entertainment or personal protection, panelists said at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference Thursday.

“There are some civic-ly useful stories that are probably best told through fiction,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Civic Media Lab, who moderated the panel. “We’ve also got an understanding that there are necessary fictions to allow people to communicate with the media.”

Diving deep into their own experiences, Zuckerman and three writers and star tweeters discussed the role of  civic fiction: Dan Sinker, author of the wildly popular @MayorEmanuel feed, and BlogHer journalist Liz Henryand NPR’s Andy Carvin, who both helped unmask a middle-age man in Scottland who had been posing as a gay Syrian woman blogger named Amina.  


Sinker talked about his 40,000-word satire on Twitter, told in exactly 1,954 tweets and based on Emanuel’s candidacy. He can’t explain why he started tweeting as @MayorEmanuel. “It started the way you start most art,” he said, “try to make a few friends entertained.”


Sinker’s twitter feat gained him some fame and earned him nearly $13, 000 for his favorite charity, after Mayor Emanuel went on radio and offered Sinker money to reveal himself.  It also, he said, helped engage more people in an otherwise “boring” race. Sinker said he  received messages from people telling him they were watching the mayoral debate because they got interested through his feed.


But when Sinker’s identity was revealed, he lost more privacy than he bargained for.  He was disturbed when reporters started knocking on his door, saying he basically had two options: give an interview, or have the reporters find his co-workers, friends and relatives. Sinker conceded to the interviews, and  as he describes it, the lines between fiction and truth, Internet and real life, began to blur. It’s scary, Sinker said, but it also leads to opportunities. Sinker has a book coming out in August, with a forward from Twitter founder Biz Stone.


(Hear more of the story on Sinker’s blog.)


Followers of the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus,”  felt deceived though earlier this month when they found out the author was actually an American man named Tom MacMasters. This after fans became worried when a relative posted on the blog that the Syrian author named Amina had been kidnapped.


The Amina story sparked Liz Henry’s suspicion and she dug into the Internet with search tools to separate truth from fiction. Henry hunted IP addresses, tracked email and ultimately helped discover who Amina really was. Henry devoted an enormous amount of energy to peeling back the layers of  MacMaster’s deception.


Later, Henry expressed her anger at the deception, which Andy Carvin explained caused him to lose all contact with his sources in Syria for more than a week. Political bloggers, as well as secretive LGBT online communities in Syria felt sure they were threatened by MacMaster.

Henry wrote on her blog:

By their lies, they harmed the fabric of social trust. Lies and hoaxes do damage to communities. The hoaxer did political damage.


The Amina story, Zuckerman pointed out, is hell for a journalist, as thereare sources who create alternative identities because they need privacy.


Carvin, known for his aggregation of the Arab Spring, gathered video and testimony from people on the ground in the Middle East– most of whom were operating under pen names. Carvin in fact only knew the true identity of one of his sources in Libya  – and that person ended up being killed. By sharing the footage and information with other people familiar with the region, he was able to determine who was credible.


“People were operating under pen names because of their safety and I wouldn’t want to put them in a position to get themselves hurt. It’s not good for me or anyone trying to bear witness in these countries,” Carvin said.


Sinker said you have to judge a case of online deception by the author’s intentionality. Recent memoirs not based in reality are attempts to deceive, he said. Fiction in itself, however, is an attempt to tell a story.


Several more ideas were broached in the video of the last half of the session, such as tools Carvin wishes he had (which he’ll discuss this morning as part of an “unconference session”), and historical acts of civic fiction.


The panelists also explored the balance between speed and accuracy that they constantly work toward as they use Twitter.


“If you want to be moving in real time,” says Sinker, “you also have embrace the fact that you’re going to screw up.” Going forward, consumers of information online will have to develop a greater comfort with vetting and judging for themselves.


Annie Shreffler is a freelance journalist covering the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference for Knight Foundation

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