Despite hoaxes, anonymity remains important

After an American admitted inventing the “Gay Girl in Damascus” character, the validity of blogs has been questioned.

The treatment of Arraf’s story raises serious questions about working with sources, as well as how to quote sources gleaned from social media. Journalists reporting on Arraf should have noted that they had not met her in person. Taking it a step further, they could have used the information provided on her blog – including her alleged full name – to attempt to verify her identity. Their failure to take such precautions is a question of journalistic integrity.

Moving forward, it will be vital for journalists who wish to incorporate online sources into their work to develop network literacy: the ability to better identify and use information gleaned from online networks.

At Global Voices, where I’ve written since 2007, authors report only on blogs and social media, making it difficult to verify content. And yet, as authors write about a place that they know well – typically their country of origin or current residence – they are able to rely on their own networks to vet and verify content.

Over the years, only a handful of errors have been made (including my own reporting on Amina Arraf). On the other hand, Global Voices has also, on numerous occasions, debunked mainstream reporting errors by closely following local blogospheres.

Some mistakes are inevitable when using online sources, but by relying on trusted networks, the vast majority – including, no doubt, the reporting on Amina Arraf – are avoidable.


Jillian C. York is a writer, activist, researcher, and blogger based in Cambridge, MA. She works at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society on the OpenNet Initiative, Herdict, and other projects related to Internet controls, and write for several platforms, including Al Jazeera English and The Guardian. She is also a volunteer representative for the Global Voices Board of Directors.

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