The week of May 29, 2016

Peeking behind the digital curtain

By Jesse Hicks

When it comes to thinking about what we glibly call the Information Age, it’s easy to adopt a sunny outlook, imagining that more information means more truth, that we’re all somehow more knowledgeable for having so much data at our fingertips, and that we’re less likely to swallow untruths than our pre-digital forebears. But as Mark Twain probably didn’t say, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at how our hyperconnected world affects and enables a certain kind of lie: the hoax.

First, Duncan Fyfe recounts the complicated history of Amina Arraf, known for her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus. When the Arab Spring and civil war in Syria shook the region, Arraf was lauded by mainstream media for her brave, eloquent writing about the facts on the ground. She defied the ruling Assad regime, and one day she was abducted on the street and forced into a car. She’d never be seen again—but not because she’d run afoul of a repressive government. Rather, Arraf had never existed except in the mind of Tom MacMaster, a failed thriller writer living in Scotland. All of Arraf’s bravery was a fiction—one that, for a time, seemed to have fooled everyone.   

Of course, MacMaster was just one high-profile and successful hoaxer among many online. Andrew McMillen profiles Brett Christensen, an Australian man who’s spent the past 13 years trying to stamp out online hoaxes. He calls himself the Hoax Slayer, and he’s on a never-ending quest, reassuring readers that the sun isn’t going to go out for eight days and that mixing Mentos and Pepsi won’t create cyanide gas. He debunks and debunks and debunks, but the lies and scams keep coming. There is no rest for the Hoax Slayer.

And finally, Aris Apostolopoulos tells his story of what it’s like being not the victim of a hoax, but a perpetrator. He recounts his time as that most ubiquitous of online hoaxers: the catfish. What makes someone pretend to be someone they’re not? What’s the allure? The motives are complicated, obviously; as Apostolopoulos tells it, his catfishing was an addiction—and an escape. He could escape himself and exert power over those who believed in his newly crafted persona. Like so many people, he was refashioning his digital self. So what if maybe he took it too far?

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration by Max Fleishman