Last week, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., sent out tweets urging his nearly 16,000 followers to write to the Syrian ambassador regarding Amina Abdallah Arraf, whom he described as an American blogger "detained and held by Syrian authority."
She "needs you," he said in one of his tweets. "Call for her immediate release . . . Do it now."
At the time, a "Free Amina" Facebook page had garnered more than 13,000 supporters. But apparently, there was no Amina Abdallah Arraf.
News reports now say she’s a fictional character on the "Gay Girl in Damascus Blog," reportedly written by 40-year-old Tom MacMaster, a married American man in Scotland.
"This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East . . .," he said in a confessional blog post Sunday.
Ellison wasn’t the only one fooled. Earlier this year, CNN conducted an e-mail interview with the blogger for a story titled, "Will gays be ‘sacrificial lambs’ in Arab spring?" Political blogger Andrew Sullivan also championed "Gay Girl."
Given the details described in the blog, it’s hard to believe anyone took it seriously. The blogger’s claims of living the life of an openly lesbian woman living in not-so-gay-friendly Syria should have served as a red flag that the claims were dubious.
And this passage doesn’t sound remotely believable: "Our culture has historically been far more at ease with homoeroticism than most Western cultures; I walk more easily hand in hand with a woman here than I ever would in the USA."
Fortunately, the blogger didn’t pass the smell test for some journalists. Last week, after "a cousin" claimed on the blog that Arraf had been abducted, the Christian Science Monitor rightly asked: "Is there really a ‘Gay Girl in Damascus?’"
The newspaper said that the blog seemed dubious and railed against media coverage in the Washington Post, CNN, the Guardian and elsewhere that had accepted the posts at face value.
"There’s the simple implausibility that a Syrian woman in Damascus felt safe publicly identifying as gay, in a blog in which she shares explicit if sophomoric erotic poetry . . .," the Monitor reported with skepticism. "In one post she discusses making out with a fellow Syrian girl in the Damascus airport (not recommended behavior)."
It appears that once one outlet treated the blog as serious, others followed suit, compromising the standards of good journalism in the process. If anything, the episode shows that journalists (and congressional leaders) need to be even more rigorous in scrutinizing Internet claims.
By the weekend, the Minnesota congressman was sending out apologies on his Twitter feed.
"I might have been duped…," he said. "News is pointing to a hoax; my apologies. Syrian people still suffering."
Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.