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The Gay Girl in Damascus hoax, 'mass rape' in Libya, and press credulity

Have our propaganda detectors been dulled?

By Staff writer / June 13, 2011



If you don't follow NPR's Andy Carvin on Twitter, let me be the first to tell you that The Gay Girl in Damascus is actually a 40-year-old American guy with a beard.

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Through the efforts of Mr. Carvin, Ali Abunimah, and a few others, Thomas MacMaster was unveiled as the hoaxster. Mr. MacMaster said today that his wife, Britta Froelicher – an American listed as an associate fellow at St. Andrew's Center for Syrian Studies – was involved as a consultant. One of the better roundups on how MacMaster was forced into admitting his lies is on Ali Abunimah's Electronic Intifada blog.

But while MacMaster appears to be a garden-variety Internet troll, the Amina persona was boosted by the willingness of the conventional press (The Guardian, CNN, New York Times) and bloggers with major followings, like Andrew Sullivan, to accept what they were being told at face value.

Propaganda and disinformation making their way into the press is as old as the printed word, but in an era where newsrooms are thinner and there are fewer experienced reporters on the ground internationally, extraordinary claims get repeated in news reports with paltry efforts – if that – to confirm them. We're also chasing Internet "traffic" like never before. The early bird gets that traffic worm, though sometimes at the expense of getting it right.

The Amina story was a doozy, and provided immediate grounds for skepticism. But even though no one had ever spoken to or met her (all communications were by e-mail) and no Syrian activist could identify her, "Amina" quickly became a cause célèbre, and some journalists were hitting her up for quotes on what it's like to be a lesbian in Syria. US diplomats wasted time trying to track down a supposed American citizen in trouble.

Which brings us to another story that I'm skeptical about that's being reported with entirely too much certainty: the claims that Muammar Qaddafi sent out thousands of soldiers with pockets full of Viagra and condoms to mass rape Libyan women.

It isn't a hoax of the nature of Amina; it's being disseminated by Luis-Moreno Ocampo, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, who clearly believes it's true.

Yet it's an extraordinary tale that has little hard information to back it. I was told the story repeatedly when I was in Libya in February and March, but could never verify any of it, so didn't report it. I've also heard the mass rape claim with the odd Viagra detail before: about seven years ago in Iraq, and in multiple small wars in Indonesia before that.

In each case, it couldn't be confirmed, and my presumption was that it was the sort of story that captures the imagination of traumatized publics. It's true that in some countries rape is commonly carried out by soldiers in the field, particularly irregular units with weak or nonexistent command and control. It's an easy leap from one or two instances of rape to seeing a mass, systematic campaign complete with gaudy claims of pills turning soldiers into sex-crazed maniacs.

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