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Tom MacMaster apologized for writing the fake "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog. (STR/AFP / Getty Images)
Tom MacMaster apologized for writing the fake "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog. (STR/AFP / Getty Images)

Male lesbians: just one type of creepy online fakery Add to ...

Note to bored middle-aged men: Got time on your hands? Like sitting in front of the computer? Why not start a lesbian blog?

You won't be the first to do so. Two American men made headlines around the world this past week when it was revealed they had constructed online personae as lesbian bloggers, the most famous of which was A Gay Girl in Damascus.

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This was the riveting blog of "Amina Arraf," a young and bravely out Syrian-American lesbian in Damascus who attracted international media attention by chronicling both the revolution there and her own personal life in such posts as: "Why I am doing this. I live in Damascus, Syria. It's a repressive police state. Most LGBT people are still deep in the closet or staying as invisible as possible. But I have set up a blog announcing my sexuality, with my name and my photo. Am I crazy? Maybe."

She wasn't crazy, just fake - even her photo - and after a breathless narrative that included a supposed kidnapping by Syrian police, and a kind and tolerant father, it was revealed that "Amina" was actually Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, married and wanting, he said in one interview, to improve his writing skills.

He sheepishly told The Guardian that he would "apologize personally" to all those he hurt, including presumably a gay Montreal woman who apparently had a steamy six-month online relationship with "Amina."

To complicate matters further, Mr. MacMaster had posted on Lezgetreal.com, a lesbian blog site whose executive editor "Paula Brooks" turned out to be Bill Graber, a 58-year-old retired construction worker and war vet.

The "male lesbian blogger" is but a laughable subset in an increasingly creepy world of online poseurs, a confusing community full of avatars, alts (alternative identities) and something called "sockpuppets," which, as far as I can make out (with a little help from Wiki), are online identities "used for purposes of deception within an online community."

Okay. Before I get into the growing dangers of such online fakery, now seems a good time to tell you that "Judith Timson" is actually Hughie McTavis, a 32-year-old unemployed house painter living in Hamilton (but obviously a man who considers himself a feminist).

That's my last joke on this mostly disturbing subject. We're now living in the wild wild west of online "voice" and "identity," and all of us - not just the media, who have a special responsibility to verify the authenticity of any bloggers they quote, but anyone who uses the Internet - are in danger of being duped every day by someone somewhere posing as someone they are not.

The harm can be immense. While Tom MacMaster (who in the Guardian's online interview seems like a man with some unresolved sexual issues) was chastised for diverting attention rom authentic human-interest stories in the tumult of Syria, not to mention appropriating "the lesbian voice," other incidents of fakery have led to tragedy and death.

In Canada, we had the heartbreaking story of Nadia Kajouji, a depressed 18-year-old Carleton University student from Brampton, Ont., who drowned herself in the Rideau River in 2008 after being encouraged to commit suicide by "Cami," whom she met in a suicide chatroom and who said she was also considering suicide.

"Cami" was one of the names used by William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, a suicide fetishist and former nurse in Minnesota who was sentenced last May to almost a year in prison for aiding the suicides of Nadia and a young man in England.

Mr. Melchert-Dinkel, who may have been responsible for encouraging many more suicides, according to an investigation carried out by the CBC's Fifth Estate, told an investigating officer he did it for " the thrill of the chase."

And back in 2009, Lori Drew, known as the MySpace Mom of Missouri, was eventually acquitted of charges arising from a cruel online hoax in 2006 that involved a fake character, "Josh Evans," who engaged in an online relationship with a 13-year-old friend of Ms. Drew's daughter. The troubled girl hanged herself after "Josh" told her the "world would be a better place without you."

These are the ones we know about, and they are chilling. Under the guise of anonymity, sick, twisted or merely mischievous people who can't get ahead otherwise, and even just adventurous writers, can have an anonymous field day online, wreaking relatively harmless havoc as in the case of A Gay Girl in Damascus, or finding a way to incite others to suicide or murder.

But there is the pesky matter of free speech, not to be taken lightly or thrown overboard just because we are increasingly vulnerable to such online fraud.

We need to distinguish between online crime carried out by predators of all sorts, who should be relentlessly prosecuted, and those other hoaxes and frauds that may have horrible results but are not criminal acts.

And most of all we need to ask ourselves, over and over again, "is this for real?" Online fakery is only going to get more common and more complex.

But, as always, the only real antidote is "user beware."

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