I’m busy contemplating adding a major new chapter to The Revolution Will Be Tweeted? (which is out now) thanks to this, as well as updating other events and releasing an expanded second edition soon. That won’t be for a while, though, so if you’re interested in seeing how the now-named Arab Spring came about (and why it wasn’t all to do with the internet) then order a copy now.
Tom MacMaster’s admitted “vanity” project would be the main focus of the new content, mainly because it’s such a strong argument in favour of my hypothesis – namely, that the internet is too corruptible and febrile a medium to actually power a revolution the likes of which we’re still seeing reverberate throughout the region. One thing is for sure, though: MacMaster’s total idiocy has set back the Arab revolution a long time, and has much more impact than simply hoodwinking a few blog readers.
The Gay Girl in Damascus wasn’t gay, or a girl, or in Damascus. And that, in a way, is the major problem with the internet. You have to take people at face value, mainly because you can’t see nonverbal cues that prove you aren’t lying. You take as given that Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari is Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari because you have no real reason to think otherwise; you think that I’m a 22 year old from England because I tell you and – because – if that isn’t true, then what else can you trust on the internet?
The old joke is that if it’s on the internet, then it must be true – with the obvious sarcasm that is dished out with that. When the gay girl becomes an American living in Scotland with a wife, and everything that they’ve written is a lie, you begin to question the veracity of everything.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: you need healthy disbelief when dealing with the internet. But the problem is that the so-called Twitter revolution was fuelled (in part) by people taking gambles which they never had before. They trusted that the internet was telling them the truth, and that Wael Ghonim, or Sandmonkey, or whoever, actually were real, and actually were going to take to the streets.
People won’t be so brash and willing to take a gamble next time. In The Revolution Will Be Tweeted? I make the argument that the internet was a part, but not the integral part of the revolution. It gave the immediacy needed to get the uprisings underway and to spread them somewhat, but in reality it was the people on the ground. However without the internet, there wouldn’t have been people on the streets, because those first images of Mohammed Bouazizi’s death were distributed by the internet.
If you can’t believe that the gay girl in Damascus actually is a gay girl, then you might not necessarily believe that the images taken moments after a fruit seller set himself alight are actually real, either. And then you don’t have the house of cards falling down.
The internet was already on shaky ground as an example of leading the charge in the Arab uprisings: if you look at the true ebb and flow of revolution, it was actually more in sync with mainstream media coverage than any online presence. The reason why we haven’t got a deposed ruler in Bahrain is because the mainstream media were too busy covering simulatenous revolutions to look at the small fry. The reason why Libya is now in civil war is that the Japanese earthquake managed to take away the media’s attention. Both still continue, trundling on (as does the uprising in Syria) because of two reasons: a quiet undercurrent based online, and the faith in common humanity and the pounding of footsteps on the street (the latter is more important than the former, by the way).
However one half of that has been crippled in terms of credibility, and to me it seems likely that the revolutionary zeal has had the wind taken out of its sails. Notwithstanding the fact that much time and effort was put into trying to get the fake blogger released from her fake imprisonment, this whole charade has managed to out a number of anti-government campaigners and outed a number of LGBT people in a country which isn’t overly predisposed to making life easy for them.
It’s also injected cynicism into the whole area, and has left people more likely to distrust than believe. If you don’t believe, it makes it infinitely more difficult to stand up for what you believe.
As well as extinguishing the revolutionary fire in anti-government campaigners in a major battleground – the next big battleground, many astute observers thought – it’s also managed to give fire to the government to put down the revolution. From The Guardian:
Informed that Syria’s official news agency, Sana, has leapt on the controversy, claiming the fictional blog had perpetuated “continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of kidnapping bloggers and activists”, MacMaster said: “Yep. I regret that.”
So the government can now shoot down any revolutionaries as saying that they’re all liars and fools. Macmaster also had a perverse rationale behind creating the hoax, which took in almost everyone: “some of my self-justification was that in having a completely fictional character being bold and forward, then it makes it easier for real people. Which is probably just a self-justification, but it was something that crossed my mind.”
If he’d thought for a moment, he’d have recognised that the exact opposite is true. Having a completely fictional character being bold and forward is not the same as having a real person be bold and forward: when you realise the fictional character is a fiction, you’re pushed further back into your hiding hole, worried that those legions of people you thought were actually with you aren’t.
The first edition of The Revolution Will Be Tweeted? was and is a first draft of history as it happened, and has as its heroes the individuals on the streets, and the villains the dictators they toppled. A later draft may well have a larger role for Tom Macmaster as a villain: the man who gave thousands of people across an entire region false hope, then crushed it – and set back the Arab revolution decades.