McKivor: Anonymity in journalism demands readers’ analysis

Because this is my inaugural column for the Oregon Daily Emerald, I feel I should start things off by making my stance clear, just so all of you know what to expect from my weekly opinion column.

People are idiots, and people who read blogs and take their word for it are dangerous idiots. They aren’t just a danger to themselves, but to those around them and society at large. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that they are a major source of societal regression.

And here’s why. Any schmuck with an opinion can get on the web, set up a WordPress account and go to town spewing out whatever vapid crap happens to get into his head. A blogger doesn’t have to have any experience in the field in which they write, nor do they have to adhere to the most basic tenants of journalistic professionalism or integrity.

So, in effect, they can pass off filth as fact while remaining anonymous. And oh, by the way, people will believe them en masse for the same reasons people believe everything they see on TV. Brilliant.

It’s apparently some huge surprise that there has been a slew of bloggers recently that have been caught lying about things that should never be lied about. Last week, Tom MacMaster, a chubby 40-year-old student living in Edinburgh, Scotland, “came out” as the real writer of “Gay Girl in Damascus,” a blog supposedly written by a lesbian activist being oppressed in [email protected]@http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/15/[email protected]@

The hoaxter then posed as the character’s cousin and told the world that Amina Arraf (the fictional activist) had been arrested and detained by Syrian authorities. He’d been writing the blog for months, taking new stories and putting his gay avatar in the middle of the action, gaining the attention of millions worldwide. He even went as far as having an online romantic relationship with a Canadian woman, just for kicks.

MacMaster didn’t even have to lie anymore at that point; because everyone was so hot and bothered, they did it for him. Activists in Damascus reportedly witnessed the “abduction” and even the Associated Press couldn’t help itself from reporting her missing. When he got caught in the lie, he told The Guardian he created the fake identity because it presented him with a challenge, but that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone.

Oh well, in that case, everything’s peachy.

Then again, far from it. His stunt not only damaged his reputation, but also discounted all the real activists inside Syria, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and every other oppressed nation in the world who are risking their lives daily to get the truth out.

MacMaster never had to face the looming threat of imprisonment, intense torture and eventual death at the hands of some demented regime. He was safe in Scotland, probably writing at a Starbucks with an Exxon Valdez-sized Latte in hand without even contemplating the harm he was doing. Hell, Bashar Al-Assad probably wants to give him a medal right about now.

Like I said before, not surprising in the least. People lie, cheat and steal to get what they want, whether it’s money, fame, power or any other drug blueprinted into the human condition.

People have been lying on blogs since the technology was available, and I get it. It is so tempting to be able to say anything you want, whenever you want, with no byline attached. A blogger can maintain anonymity pretty easily, and therefore doesn’t have to cop to anything unless they’re as dumb as MacMaster and use someone else’s Facebook profile picture as an avatar (oops).

This is a huge problem, because in my experience, people don’t look into the source material of what they read as deeply as they should. Blogs that have credible organizations behind them (New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, AP) can, for the most part, be relied upon because there is a certain degree of fact-checking that happens in the writing process.

When the source is independent, credibility is harder to earn, but most of the time, it doesn’t matter. They have artificial credibility created by their base of blind sheep.

Can you see what I’m getting at here? We live in this world of he-said-she-said-argue-to-win-infotainment-overload and people seem to be mostly okay with that. Well, it’s not okay. Spreading the information one picks up from a bad blog is tantamount to creating the lie in the first place, and it can be counterproductive, and downright dangerous (if you don’t believe me, watch Talhotblond, an award-winning documentary on the dangers of web anonymity).

There are legitimate journalists for a reason, and for whatever distrust you may have toward the mainstream news media, I can guarantee they are more reliable on the whole than any independent blog floating around the net. So do yourself a favor — no, do society a favor. Read good news and think.

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