Emma Cowing: Fake blog just one of internet's web of lies

AH, THE vagaries of the internet. One day you're an anonymous American academic working at Edinburgh University, the next, you're being pilloried on every news channel in the western world as "that bloke who pretended to be a Syrian lesbian".

The recent unmasking of "imprisoned gay Syrian blogger" Amina Arraf, who turned out to be "married American man living in Scotland" Tom MacMaster, has stunned the internet-savvy world.

Members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender community in Syria have expressed their outrage that MacMaster has put a number of lives in danger by shining a dangerous light on a community that is already under persecution. He had been blogging under the guise of Arraf for months and last week claimed, in a post purporting to have been written by her cousin, that she had been arrested by security forces.

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The Syrian regime has leapt on the fictious blog as an example of a "misleading media campaign against Syria".

Others have commented on their disdain for a man whose vanity and ego have clearly run riot. Even politician George Galloway waded in, describing MacMaster as "a Scottish American agent of disinformation" and enquiring "How many other plots are there?" Which is a bit rich coming from a man who spent a month on Celebrity Big Brother pretending to be a cat, but anyway.

The sexual politics of the situation are dubious, to say the least. MacMaster claims he chose to take on the mantle of a gay woman in order to earn "some deference from obnoxious men", which is offensive both to gay women and obnoxious men everywhere. I suspect he decided to write as a lesbian because he believed it might boost his readership.

I remember a friend who made a big deal about being left handed. When I asked why he remarked: "I'm a straight, white, middle-class man. It's the one thing that makes me stand out."

MacMaster clearly thought his voice should be heard, and that changing his voice to that of a gay woman's would allow more people to hear it. As an exercise in ignorant egotism, it is quite astounding.

But there is, I think, a wider concern here. New figures show that 100,000 Britons have left Facebook recently, bored with the social networking site and concerned about privacy. Indeed, Facebook's poor security was aptly demonstrated by MacMaster, who used pictures that he had found on the social networking site of a young woman living in London, Jelena Lecic, to represent Amina. Lecic says she has found the whole situation "very disturbing" and will be taking legal action against MacMaster.

Then there is the documentary film Catfish, shown recently on More4, which follows a young New Yorker who gets caught up in a relationship with an attractive young woman whom he meets on Facebook. When he finally meets her in person, he finds she is not at all what she seems.The web has given the human race an enormous curtain to hide behind, a place where we can perpetuate identity crimes to our heart's content.

But the ability to hide so easily online also makes the internet dangerous. Paedophiles use the internet to ensnare innocent young children. Thousands have their bank details stolen every day through sophisticated online ruses.

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The final sting in MacMaster's sordid little tale is that it turns out Amina is not the only fake lesbian blogger out there. Two days after MacMaster's unmasking another married man, 58-year-old retired construction worker Bill Graber, was revealed as the person behind Paula Brooks, the editor of respected gay issues website Lez Get Real. "Amina" and "Paula" knew each other.

Despite being straight, married men, they had even flirted with each other, carrying on a casual romance the complexity of which makes the eyes water just to think about it. Do any of us ever really know who we're talking to online? I have no idea. But from now on, I think I might just put a phone call in first to check.