At Theorizing the Web this year, MIT Center for Civic Media alum Molly Sauter delivered a powerful paper on the idea of “civic fiction” using the the case of A Gay Girl in Damascus (about how a white American man created a compelling fake lesbian Syrian blogger named Amina during the height of the Syrian resistance) to show how a fictional narrative co-constructed by a culturally homogenous author and audience (in this case Western) can do problematic political work by amplifying an Orientalist narrative. The result is a feedback loop through a media ecosystem that thinks its functioning as a bridge between narratives but is actually serving as a insidious mirror.
Her concepts of “civic fiction” and the “mirror figure” are important new constructs for civic media to wrestle with. At the Center for Civic Media, our standard “demo” slides feature an image of Mike Daisey holding an iPad with the caption “exaggeration and distortion,” which we use as an example of ways we need to be skeptical about the way media is used for civic and activist purposes. In Daisey’s case, his source was actually theater, but it was dropped into a news context—a situation he’s reflected on with respect to how truth is negotiated with the audience.* Often we think about these not as fictions but little distortions that add up to propaganda in some cases. What’s new about the Amina hoax in the case Molly presents is the possibility that we will all be in on it, unwittingly or not—our biases confirmed. And we won’t be able to fact-check our way out of one of these feedback loops because the truth is inaccessible in a place like Syria. What if This American Life couldn’t do the background research and produce a completely separate episode to retract Mike Daisey’s “creative” version of the truth?
Below are my notes from Molly’s talk, and you can also watch her deliver it thanks to the livestream capture.
A Gay Girl in Damascus and the Cosmopolitan Romance of the Bridge Figure
In this talk, Molly is merging Lilie Chouliarakis’ “ecastatic” news events with Ethan Zuckerman’s concept of the “bridge blogger” to discuss a new idea: civic fiction. She defines civic fiction as “the construction of complex counter-factual narratives that (in and of themselves) allow people or events to participate in a civic dialogue that they would not (or believe they would not) be able to participate in otherwise.”
While her central case study is A Gay Girl in Damascus, Molly stresses that her paper is not about how problematic it is for white guys to pretend to be lesbians online. “We can all agree that that’s not okay.”
Getting the argument going, according to Chouliaraki, the Arab Spring is the perfect example of an ecstatic news event. It is convergent, bringing journalists and non-journalists together in co-creation of the media around the event. More specifically, protest-oriented stories are a specific aspect of convergent, ecstatic journalism. Chouliaraki identifies the coverage of the Egyptian uprisings as:
“constru[ing] the Egypt protests as a historical and political event strongly resonating with Western socio-political sensibilities; and prioritis[ing] a solidarity of justice that focuses on political transformation over a solidarity of salvation.”
Essentially, the ecstatic news coverage that typified the Arab Spring and Syrian Resistance was structured to encourage the development of cosmopolitan solidarity between its Western audience and Middle Eastern subject by casting their voices and struggle in terms of Western struggle for democracy.
Here, Molly brings in Ethan Zuckerman’s concept of the “bridge blogger,” which he defines in his book Rewire as a specific type of figure who can occupy more than one place at once because of some unique biography. Molly argues that if Amina had been a real person she would have been an ideal bridge figure: a middle aged, conventionally attractive, American-born Syrian. Moreover, the blog was written in an engaging style; The Washington Post called it “really a lovely blog.”
However, Amina was a character created by someone whom she shared few traits with. Molly argues that the creator was someone who IS the audience the character she was designed for. Thus she could not be a bridge figure because she can only reflect the desires of the Western audience itself: she was a “mirror figure.”
The mirror figure emerges from its own target audience. In this case, it’s the orientalist performance of a white Western man. But the Amina mirror figure’s fictional nature doesn’t preclude it from doing political work. Rather, Molly argues that the Amina hoax did real political work through its amplification by mainstream media, empowering [and propagating] its false narrative. In this way, civic fiction has the ability to transform its audience from passive consumers to collaborators in the fictional premise, which poses all sorts of potential problems. For instance, Molly asks provacatively: can the sympathy extended to Amina be taken back without taking it from others like Amina to which sympathy was given?
* Clarification added after a Twitter conversation with Mike Daisey.