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

Have our propaganda detectors been dulled?

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.

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.

Mr. Ocampo is already seeking separate war crimes warrants for Qaddafi and his son, and clearly has some prosecutorial zeal for the Libyan strongman. He didn't provide any evidence for his claim beyond referring to reports that a few hundred women may have been raped.

Yet here's how Ocampo's claim was handled by The Guardian last week. "Libya mass rape claims: using Viagra would be a horrific first" is the headline. "Reports of the distribution of 'Viagra-type' pills to troops add an unprecedented element to Gaddafi's alleged war crimes." This paper also took Ocampo's claims at face value. "ICC: Evidence shows that Qaddafi ordered rape of hundreds."

None of this is to say that perhaps evidence won't be provided that, in due course, shows that the such a planned crime was carried out. It's just that the press, much as with Amina, is accepting unproven claims. We may be simply putting it in the mouth of Ocampo, but very rarely do we point out that we haven't been shown or allowed to examine the alleged evidence ourselves.

One man who says he has is Cherif Bassiouni, a United Nations investigator of human rights abuses in Libya. Mr. Bassiouni told a press conference that he'd heard the Viagra rape claim during his fact-finding mission to Libya – both from rebels against Qaddafi's troops and from Qaddafi's officials against the rebel militias. He says he found no evidence in either case. (Bassiouni's report did present evidence of government torture, murder, and illegal detention).

"What it is, at least my interpretation of it is, when the information spread out, the society felt so vulnerable ... it has created a massive hysteria," he said. Bassiouni also said that the source of Ocampo's information was a woman who says she sent out 70,000 questionnaires to Libyan families. That woman, in his telling, says she received 60,000 responses, of which 259 women reported sexual abuse at the hands of soldiers.

A response rate like that to a questionnaire asking for explicit information of sexual abuse would be stunning, not least in a conservative country like Libya. It's also not clear how the questionnaire was distributed so widely, since the Libyan postal system isn't functioning. Bassiouni says he doubts the story. "But she's going around the world telling everybody about it ... she got that information to Ocampo and Ocampo is convinced that here we have a potential 259 women who have responded to the fact that they have been sexually abused."

In my six weeks in Libya, I saw credible evidence at first hand of Qaddafi's troops indiscriminately shelling the civilian quarters of rebel held towns. I had interviews with dozens of credible witnesses about torture in government detention centers, and the indiscriminate murder of people on the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli in the early days of the uprising in an attempt to put it down. There is certainly plenty for Qaddafi to answer for. And rape has indeed been used systematically in some conflicts, notably the Congo.

But I also heard over-the-top demonization of the man and his forces – absurd rumors that chemical weapons were being used, that secret guns with poison bullets had been distributed, that, yes, soldiers were being sent out with pockets full of Viagra. Misinformation and rumors, either disseminated as propaganda or in good faith by people willing to believe the worst about their enemies, are common in war zones.

It's also common on the Internet. The job of traditional reporters is to head that sort of thing off, not provide a megaphone for it.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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