By now, the internet knows about how the Gay Girl in Damascus was a hoax and Paula Brooks of Lez Get Real is a straight man. These aren’t the first people to be caught ‘faking it’ to tell a story. In fact, both Tom MacMaster (‘Amina’ from Gay Girl in Damascus) and Bill Graber (‘Paula’) claimed to do what they did with the best intentions. They had seen the way gays are treated and felt that, as men, their point of view would be dismissed. Where this crosses the line from ‘best intentions’ and wanders right into out and out deception, however, is where they begin lying to cover their tracks.
Look, this isn’t new. George Eliot (who wrote Silas Marner) was a woman. James Chartrand of Men with Pens fame is actually a woman. George Eliot did it to protect her personal life, James Chartrand did it to make a living. (Her story about the whys, hows and repercussions is pretty awesome.) There’s a long history of people using pen names, and a lot are mentioned in Carmela Ciuraru’s new book Nom De Plume: A Secret History of Pseudonyms.
Pretending to be someone else is draining. You’re constantly aware of pronouns and speech patterns. Do I sound like who I am supposed to be? I’ve done it before as a social experiment in college, to see if someone can ‘fake’ being a man online so well that no one would know.(Of note – this was in the early 90s, so things were pretty new then.) I did it so well that, when I carried on doing it for a few more years, there was a hilarious point where I was flirting with my girlfriend (she knew the truth behind the ‘character’) on a public forum, and someone felt it was important to tell me that she was both taken and a lesbian.(This may be why so many people think I’m a man online… I guess I ‘write male.’)
Using a pen name is something we all accept and can understand. It’s when you delve into the complete fake persona that the world gets a little hinky. ‘Paula’ was a deaf lesbian, who had a girlfriend, kids, and a father who answered the phone and ‘interpreted’ for her (most people think the ‘father’ was actually Graber). At some point, ‘Paula’ killed off her girlfriend. And ‘Amina’? She told in depth details about her parents, how she hid in secret rooms (ala Anne Frank), and how most of her family had to leave the country.
These people became deceitful when they crafted complex dramas for their fake lives, and wrapped in layers upon layers of excuses and explanations as to why they can’t meet you.(My excuse is the truth – I’m really shy and nervous around meeting new people.) The bigger the lie, the more likely they are to get caught. ‘Amina’ was caught because her blog claimed she was arrested and no one in Damascus could find information on her.
And this is where the technology aspect of the drama unfolds. This becomes a post about technology and not just a rant about deception when you realize how careful you need to be to keep up the lies. If ‘Paula’ left a comment on my blog, her IP address would be logged. If she, subsequently, said ‘I’m in Amsterdam this week and…’ I could look at her IP and sort out where she really was. If she was using something like The Tor Project (aka Onion routing) to hide her location, I would be suspicious.
Thankfully, for people like me who spend time worrying about impersonators, you can peel back the onion layers of Tor and deduce who people are. Currently, there is no 100% reliable way to back-trace an IP through all the Tor layers, but simply the use of it on common, casual sites would be enough to raise eyebrows and some risks.(If you’re really interested in tracing Tor/Onion users, read Practical Onion Hacking) In 2007, a German blogger acting as a Tor providor was arrested because someone used his service to download child porn.
Why would someone want to use Tor at all? Tor is great for doing things you aren’t supposed to be doing, and while a lot of the time that means impersonation, trolling and general internet asshollery, it also can be used to allow information to be posted from places where a repressive government doesn’t permit, or where it would be socially unacceptable if you were found out. Like if ‘Amina’ had been real, her use of Tor would make sense. If you really were a persecuted lesbian in a hostile environment, you would use Tor to make your blog posts so the local government couldn’t track you down at your house. Assuming they don’t know how to hack a Tor setup.
Besides the technical aspects, there’s a lot of social engineering that goes on behind impersonation. ‘Paula’ turned herself in after constant questions from the news(I should mention that the Paula Brooks story is even more intricate and crazy than originally though! Bilerico reports on the inconsistencies and the more we learn the less we seem to know about the ‘real’ person behind Paula Brooks.), but ‘Amina’ was found out only after red flags were raised when people tried to help the poor arrested girl. In both cases, there were enough holes in their stories that people began to question the ‘facts’ as well as the motives. There is a difference between using a pen name to protect yourself (or to advance your career) and creating a whole persona. The difference between James Chartrand and someone like JT LeRoy is that James didn’t create an elaborate backstory, James just wrote under a pseudonym. It’s most likely that no one ever asked if James was really a man, they just assumed. There are a lot of ways, legally, to do that. Get a good lawyer you can trust, and they can act as your proxy in all things. Now no one has to know.
Law & Order has done a couple episodes based on this phenomena. Some are about the people who use plastic surgery to hide themselves, another on the woman who hired an actor to ‘play’ her male persona and was betrayed, and so on and so forth. It makes for good TV, I’ll admit, but the truth is that all of those people were found out, and many times before their ‘death.’
I think the most ironic thing to come from the whole mess is this:
In the guise of Paula Brooks, Graber corresponded online with Tom MacMaster, thinking he was writing to Amina Arraf. Amina often flirted with Brooks, neither of the men realizing the other was pretending to be a lesbian. (Source: Washington Post – ‘Paula Brooks,’ editor of ‘Lez Get Real,’ also a man)
Between the technical and social engineering weaknesses, using a pen-name to craft an entirely new identity is something that can get your credibility shot. There’s a reason we leave false identities up to people like WitSec or the CIA. It’s hard, and the costs of being found out are devastating.