Bill Graber and Paula Brooks: open questions

I’ll publish a post with more details tomorrow morning at BlogHer.com, but for now, here are a few questions about Paula Brooks and Bill Graber. [ETA: the post is up: Lesbian Blogger Hoax: Warnings & Questions about Paula Brooks

white dude supposedly bill graber

1. Does Graber really have a wife, and if so what is her name? Is she Paula Brooks? Why hasn’t the “real” Paula come forward — or anyone who knows her? There is a real Paula from Fairborn, Ohio, at the same address as Graber, who appeared in court as a witness against him in a domestic violence case.

paula brooks or just some chick in a bar in Fairborn, Ohio?

2. Is the female, real-person Paula Brooks okay?

3. Is Graber potentially violent or dangerous right now? Is he harassing any of his former colleagues? Since research by Mel and Robin and others in comments here pointed to the Fairborn, Ohio court records, we can see that Graber has been convicted of stalking, domestic violence, assault, DUI, and other more minor offenses. I checked the Ohio state correctional system and didn’t see Graber or Brooks recorded there.

4. It may be worth looking into North Carolina (Outer Banks area) court records in case they did live there. Did anyone in the Outer Banks blogging community have strange correspondence with Paula Brooks? Did they know Graber in real life?

5. Who are these twin children Paula Brooks claimed were her babies? Did Graber steal some other blogger’s baby photos? Are they stock photos?

twin babies supposedly paula brooks' children

6. Are the other lezgetreal staffers, LInda S. Carbonell aka Linda LaVictoire, her daughter Brigitte LaVictoire, and others, sincere? (Adam from the Bilerico Project appears to think so, and he’s pretty awesome.)

7. Are Carbonell and La Victoire still working with Graber? What about the things they’ve said and done in the past — for example, Carbonell claiming to have close relatives in the government?

8. Who were those other people who spoke for Brooks at Bill Graber’s number, who said they were NBC staff – the younger man and older women?

9. Did Brooks or Graber actually have any contact with NBC, or the Olbermann or Maddow shows?

10. Was Graber in the military, as he claims?

11. How did Brooks know about inside political information before it broke — about various military/political figures? (http://juliephineas.com/?p=2599)

12. What is Graber’s real background and resume? Can we find other traces of his involvement with Middle Eastern politics? (Because it seems a little odd, especially given the contents of some private chats and emails people have showed me.)

13. What LGBT activists or writers has Graber/Brooks attacked in the past, and is there any pattern in those actions?

[ETA: Adam Polaski has just published part 4 in his series on this mess on The Bilerico Project: The Unreliable World of Bill Graber, which makes some good points about Graber’s inconsistent claims.]

Chasing Amina

Over the past few days in speaking with Ali and Ben from Electronic Intifada, we shared information, links and theories about the blogger behind Amina of Gay Girl in Damascus. Ben and Ali have now posted some of the evidence collected. The Amina blogger is connected strongly with Thomas (Tom) J MacMaster and Britta Froelicher, formerly from Georgia, now living in Scotland.

The blogger behind Amina has been exchanging long emails with me for the last few days, and also shows up as several of the people commenting on the post below, Painful doubts about Amina. I continued email contact out of concern for the person behind the hoax. I feel fairly sure I was speaking with Tom MacMaster.

A couple of days ago I realized LezGetReal.com editor Paula Brooks, who had worked with Amina, was being interviewed by mainstream media. Brooks had not communicated by voice to the reporters — only over email or chat. Brooks’ online presence looked a bit thin. Ben and Ali tried to verify any of the facts of her education and employment, and could not find evidence of Paula Brooks’ existence. I spoke with people who were close to Brooks and should have met her — but who had never seen her. I have no direct evidence that Brooks is Tom MacMaster, but circumstantial evidence shows it is a good avenue for research. If Brooks is *another distinct hoaxer*, that will be very odd, and will need more investigation.

I’d like to warn people who have been in contact with Amina — and with Paula Brooks — to be skeptical about others they know online who they have not met in person.

Journalists covering a story about a hoax should be careful to verify the existence of their sources.

I have compassion for the mental and emotional state of the Amina hoaxer. But the pattern that the person shows in their engagement with others is very disturbing.

Many people have good reason to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. They might like to express an aspect of their personality that would not mix well with their professional life. They might have gender identity issues they are working through. They might be in a family situation that makes it unsafe for them to come out as gay. They might write fiction using characters whose stories are under copyright. None of those, however, are excuses for deception and manipulative behavior.

In my talk at SXSWi on “fiction and hoax” bloggers, I suggested that intelligence agencies should begin to hire or should be hiring creative writers with technical proficiency, who can run deep cover online “agents” to establish a credible online footprint.

Perhaps that has come to pass, but in the case of Amina, perhaps the writer behind Gay Girl in Damascus is acting from their own motivations, exploring gender identity and relationships or perhaps partly from loving the feeling of being embedded into Internet drama and weaving believable fiction. The person may be mentally ill in some way. Their feeling of being unsafe may have led them into creating alter egos who bravely face danger.

Yet in leaving smokescreens of lies, the shells of Amina and Rania, AmandaLynn and others I could name, the hoaxer hasn’t just hurt the people who thought they were close to Amina. They wasted the time of a lot of activists, human rights workers, journalists, and people concerned about Syrian politics. By their lies, they harmed the fabric of social trust. Lies and hoaxes do damage to communities. The hoaxer did political damage.

I tried to persuade the Amina-blogger, who was emailing me, to step forward and make a public statement on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, at the least to assure readers that she was not in police custody. The writer’s response was to continue creating new layers of deceit. We discussed postmodern constructions of identity and gender issues for several days. Meanwhile I continued digging into the backgrounds of the online identities connected with Amina, working with Ali, Ben, and keeping in touch with others working on the same story.

This weekend, I haven’t been able to do any research or keep up with the comments on this blog, as I’ve been mostly offline at the Foo Camp conference in Sebastopol. I’m very glad that Ali and Ben (as well as Andy Carvin and Jillian York) continued research and put together such a careful explanation of their reasoning and of the evidence. I hope other people who have more resources at their disposal can bring the truth to light, and that the hoaxer gets a healthier kind of attention, support and help in their real life identity.

Note: I work for BlogHer and you can verify my identity with my employer, or with Danny O’Brien from the Committee to Protect Journalists. There are also records and videos of my public speaking appearances at technical conferences, so for anyone wondering if I am a real person: yes I am.

Painful doubts about Amina

This morning I woke up to reports that Amina Abdalla, aka Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, who blogs on Gay Girl in Damascus had been detained in Syria. Her cousin posted to give the details, and people were twittering and blogging about the situation, there was a Facebook page and a #freeamina hashtag and people talking about what to do as activists to pressure for her release. At work in the morning, I let people at BlogHer know, since we featured her post some months ago, My Father, the Hero. My coworkers were very concerned, Heather Clisby posted about Amina’s situation, and our entire community of women bloggers geared up to support her. I wrote to one of my senators and signed some online petitions in her support, and sent out messages to everyone I know to try to help her.

Over the course of the day as I tracked the stories about Amina I noticed that all the articles sourced her blog, and then her other blog from 2007. I started looking for traces of her elsewhere. She has a Facebook page, but not a lot of other presence. It looked to me like her 2007 blog was a few chapters of experimentation with a memoir or a novel. Then she abandoned that and brought it back in mid-February on a new site. Not uncommon. But I started having doubts based on some of her patterns of talking about personas and fiction. Back when people were talking about My Father, the Hero, I heard people doubting Amina’s existence simply based on her being an out lesbian in Damascus. I argued against that doubt and would not doubt someone based on their identity. But now began to feel differently.

As the afternoon wore on I felt that (even sluggish as it is) mainstream media should by now have found people who were personal friends, family, fellow students or co-workers of Amina from her time in the U.S. if not contacts in Syria. Again.. a day went by and all the sources and quotes were from two blogs by the same person, about that person. Interviews surfaced but they were all interviews by email. Then as I questioned things on my blogs and on twitter, in some phone calls to activists and journalists, I saw that Amina’s friend Sandra Bagaria in Montreal was twittering about her and was beginning to give interviews. She was reported as close friend, girlfriend, and partner in different sources. Sandra Bagaria, unlike Amina, had a clear presence on the web. That put my fears partly to rest. But I wondered a bit about Bagaria’s aliases: her twitter description read: “aka Marjane, aka Lisbeth and a Syrian lover.” Really… Hmm.

I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support.

But it now turns out that Bagaria has never met Amina in person. They had an online relationship. As I see it, this could indicate various possibilities:

– Amina is as she appears to be, a talented writer living in Syria; perhaps with a different name and with the names of her family members obscured.

– Amina is someone else entirely in Syria.

– Amina is someone else; anything goes. Amina could be Odin Soli for all I know. In fact, wouldn’t it fit all too neatly?

– Amina is Sandra Bagaria.

In 2007 I gave a talk at SXSWi on Fictional Blogging. I talked about astroturfing, sockpuppets, deep cover established online over time, and hoax bloggers who turned out to be not what they seemed. My own blogging community in around 2003 included a charismatic blogger named Plain Layne. Her life as a bisexual young woman was full of drama; she was goodhearted, generous, incredibly engaging, a fabulous writer, and would sometimes get herself into situations that would just make you stay awake at night worrying about her life, her cousin who had a baby, her upcoming dates, who she was going to sleep with… it was quite incredible. I’m sure many bloggers and blog readers have gone through this cycle of becoming fascinated with another person’s life through their textual output. Plain Layne had fans. When she wrote about being a rape survivor, many of us emailed and IM-ed her to offer long nights of support, or told our painful stories of trauma or abuse so she’d know she wasn’t alone.

Well… to make a long story short Plain Layne turned out to be this middle aged guy named Odin Soli who had also won blog awards years before as Acanit, a young lesbian Muslim girl with a Jewish girlfriend. Despite watching many of my close (in person and online) friends feel that their basic trust in humanity was damaged from this hoax, I invited Odin to come speak with me at SXSWi about blogging under a persona and how his “experimental fiction” had gone too far. We had a fantastic public discussion that stretched (at the audience’s request) an hour past our allotted panel time. I liked Odin a lot. He was fun to be around, as well as being a good writer and superb online performer of identity. His Layne stories evolved later into a novel, The Mexican Year… which by the way were about a Muslim woman. If you read all three of these writing projects, you may see some stylistic and thematic similarities with Amina. I believed in Amina, up till the spark of doubt I began feeling this afternoon. But… I believed hard in Layne too.

odin soli

One of the high points of the discussion at SXSWi was talking with Ethan Zuckerman about political and government uses of “fictional” blogging. It would certainly be easy to imagine disinformation campaigns — say, a refugee camp blogger who reported on conditions in some way that was false and aimed at discrediting a political movement or government either because they were believed, or because they were revealed as fakes. What we thought was that if we could imagine it, someone else had probably already thought of it and was doing it.

In this case, how could I tell from this distance? I hope you can see why my spidey sense went off for Amina. I don’t disbelieve in her becuase she’s a great writer with a sense of drama and rhetoric, or because of her sexual orientation or her activism. For example, I don’t for a second doubt the existence of Riverbend, who blogged so eloquently and for so long from Baghdad and then fled to Syria with her family. But I start to really, really, want some trustable and deep sources for Amina. How can an activist whose life is in danger provide that credibility? It’s a very hard question. There have been good experiments done of inventing credible people — inserting them into conferences by having them tweet a lot and write about what they’re doing, then have them friend everyone they “met” at the conference — 9 times out of 10 I would friend that person back even if I couldn’t remember meeting them. Then I’d “know” them on Facebook and Twitter and in the blog world, and they’d be friends with lots of my real life friends. I would not at all be surprised if some of my social media contacts were complicated fictional creations — either literary experiments, or politically motivated cyber-infiltrators.

Like I said, not only was I imagining how to do this well back in 2005 or so, other much more powerful — or much more creative and weird — people than me were likely imagining it — and doing it. We saw with the HBGary case that there is software to manage a stack of complicated online personas and their social media presences and keep their backgrounds and relationships straight. Of course. Right?

At one point in 2008, I busted an entire fake astroturf political community, PumaPAC. That was fun.

In this situation, if I were Sandra Bagaria, and if I weren’t Sandra/Amina, I’d be taking my computer to a friendly hackerspace and get an expert vouched for by the community there to look at my email headers and whatever other records of contact I had with Amina. From that it should be possible to tell something of her location. I would believe a fair bit of sophistication in hiding that location and identity is realistic of course. But it might not hold up to scrutiny.

Andy Carvin has been twittering all afternoon trying to find someone who has met Amina in person and has not succeeded.

If this is a hoax, I feel for everyone involved whose emotions were brought to a pitch and who stepped up to try and support Amina Araf. It also must be really infuriating for the LGBT people actually in Syria and for many other activists and bloggers who have been detained for their online writing.

If I’m wrong then I am being very rude to Amina and I am terribly sorry for that. But, I feel that it’s incredibly important to maintain some skepticism when sources are so thin.

Please change my mind with evidence and good sources. On the other hand, I’d like it if Amina didn’t exist, because then she wouldn’t be in jail and in danger, though other people are who need our support.

Update: Andy Carvin just posted with his thoughts. He is leaning towards believing that Amina is real, but doesn’t know a lot of people in person and lives her social life online. That is plausible, and I’m sure we’ll find out more over the next couple of days. Someone must have known her in Atlanta, for example… Meanwhile, I hope she is safe.

Fundraiser for the girl in Cleveland, Texas

Thank you to Sylvia Gonzalez of Houston, Vice President of the Southwest chapter of LULAC, who organized the effort to get money directly to the family of the 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas who was gang raped a few months ago and then basically got slut-shamed by her entire town and the New York Times. This post has information and links about the situation: How to help the 11 year old girl in Texas.

Logo for FM 1960 with Texas map

In the comments on my original post you can see several organizations local to this girl and her family, and you might like to donate to them to support the local infrastructure. I donated to several of them, including Bridgehaven, the Montgomery Women’s Center, and New Horizons Family Center. While I respect those organizations and think they’re important, I also think it’s important to get money directly to people in crisis. The girl’s family had to move, her mom has serious health problems, her dad was out of work for months, and I’m sure they can use all the avenues of help that are possible.

You can mail a check made out to the Cleveland Crime Victim Family directly to Sylvia (10102 Elm Knoll Trail, Houston, Texas, 77064), deposit it into any Amegy Bank. If you donate using the Chipin fund I set up here, I’ll collect that money and mail Sylvia a check next week. Any Paypal fees that get charged I will make up as my extra donation. If you want to leave a note for the family here, or email it to me privately (lizhenry@gmail.com) I’ll include those notes when I send Sylvia the check.

The story and the stories and comments that came out of it were so horrific, I needed to do something directly, so as not to feel so despairing. It was tremendously heartening to read all the comments on my first post, and I swore to follow up, so that people would have a way to contribute and respond further. When I raised money for Katrina disaster relief and flew out to the Astrodome, I ended up using that money — a couple of thousand dollars in cash — to people at moments when it made a big difference in their lives. I saw it work and have also appreciated getting no strings attached money to help me through crises in my own life. I think there is also something powerful about knowing that an individual person, even a stranger, has the faith in you to help out on that level. Thanks for reading, donating, or commenting, everyone!

Please repost the link to the ChipIn or feel free to repost all or part of this. I don’t have a lot of readers, so signal boost is definitely needed!