Major lesbian sock puppets? Whatever next?

Let's get to the point. Are there any lesbian bloggers out there who aren't straight, middle-aged, American men? (Short answer: yes, and they're understandably furious.) If, for some strange reason, you have not been following the serpentine twists of the international blogosphere in recent days, let me bring you up to speed. Not one, but two, celebrated lesbian bloggers - "Amina Arraf" of A Gay Girl in Damascus and "Paula Brooks", editor of the lesbian website LezGetReal, have been "outed": they are neither women nor lesbians. They're men; plain, old, run-of-the-mill men. In a lovely detail, Tom MacMaster (Amina) and Bill Graber (Paula) even exchanged flirtatious messages, each hoodwinked by the other's sapphic guise.

As Graber said, "It was a major sock-puppet hoax crash into a major sock-puppet hoax."Ah, the major sock-puppet hoax crash. It's a phrase that requires a little unpicking - too many adjectives, too many nouns. (The images are perplexing, too. Can sock puppets ever be major? How do hoaxes crash?) But there are more serious questions to ask, such as: "Why did two fully grown men think it was a good idea to assume the identities of lesbians and publicise their musings on matters relating to that made-up fact?" They went to some extraordinary lengths to keep the ruse alive, too. Graber, on the phone to journalists, said that his daughter was the blogger but communicated through him because she was deaf. MacMaster, in a moment of whirlwind invention, pretended Amina had been captured by Syrian government officials so that he could have a break from blogging to go on holiday to Istanbul with his wife. You almost have to credit these guys for the sheer audacity of their yarn-spinning but it was never going to turn out well.

People are rightly outraged by the men's dishonesty. MacMaster, in particular, has detracted from the plight of gay activists in Syria and potentially endangered some of them. Yet why are we so surprised? We always knew that the blogosphere was a lawless place, ripe for trickery. As spheres go, it wins the nutty league with ease. (Give me the atmosphere, any day. No abusive trolls, no surfeit of shouty opinion, no misogyny, no racism, no dissembling. You know exactly what you're getting up there: layers of gas. Not that different from what's on offer in the blogosphere. Think of the way blogs shapelessly expand, their lack of substance, their occasional tendency to be poisonous or bilious.)

Hand of Rolf

Every day, people write blogs under a variety of pseudonyms. It's like the Wild West - nobody is who they seem. You think Alastair Campbell writes his blog? Nonsense, it's Melanie Phillips, indulging her inner lefty and even more deftly concealed sense of humour. Guido Fawkes is the beautifully drawn fictional construct of Rolf Harris. The Huffington Post is the handiwork of a Church of England primary school in Potters Bar, whose pupils thought they'd do it as their summer project a few years ago and then watched it spiral out of control.

There should be a bloggers' amnesty, a day when anyone blogging under a false name can come clean. It would be a collective unmasking of the internet. And not just the bloggers: why not go for the commenters, too? Imagine how satisfying it would be to unveil all those who freely snipe and carp under the assumed name of FutileLoser101.

Most of these late-night hate-smiths are not vulnerable women living in Syria. They are bored, bitter individuals who spend lonely hours going on the Daily Mail website in order to write pithy observations such as “A freak of a woman!" beneath pictures of Angelina Jolie. (True, unlike all the blog revelations above. But wouldn't it be wonderful if Rolf Harris were Guido Fawkes? So unlikely, so devastating.)

Then, perhaps, we could indulge in some old-fashioned public humiliation, posting pictures of commenters' faces beside their offerings, as well as their email address so they can receive some "comments", too. We could even draw red rings around the most offensive ones, like the dye that shamed children who peed in French swimming pools (a myth, sadly). The possibilities are endless. Never let it be said that we failed to turn a lesbian blogging crisis into an opportunity.

Laurie Penny is away

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia