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This article was published on August 2, 2011

Twitter investigation uncovers another Middle East hoax

Twitter investigation uncovers another Middle East hoax
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Just a couple of months after the Gay Girl in Damascus hoax, it seems that the Middle Eastern twitosphere is once again investigating an impersonator claiming to be an Arab woman. While Tom McMaster may have had what he believed to be noble intentions, there appears to be nothing noble about this latest story.

The person in question is known as Liliane Khalil, a supposed Atlanta-based journalist of Palestinian and Armenian heritage who was writing for the Bahrain Independent, a newspaper who’s site has been in maintenance for over a week now, as well as a brief stint writing for the Cairo-based news site Bikya Masr.

When her Twitter account disappeared, many voiced concern for her safety, until she reappeared with a new account, claiming her original one was hacked. Sensing something fishy about Liliane Khalil’s accounts, and her outlandish statements of interviewing prominent figures including  Mohamed El Baradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Egyptian presidential candidate, as well as Natan Sharansky, an Israeli politician and human rights activist, with nothing online to backup her claims, and no stories emerging from these supposed interviews, a couple of Twitter users began to dig a little deeper.

They found that the images used on both her Twitter accounts were in fact of Gisele Cohen, an Atlanta-based healthcare worker, and that her claims to have written for the Turkey-based newspaper Sabah were lies.

Khalil’s connections to Bahrain have been a particular cause for concern. Despite a very vocal support for the uprisings sweeping the Middle Eastern region, Khalil’s opinions on Bahrain were in stark contrast to her support for democracy in Egypt and Syria. An article that she wrote for the Bahrain Independent, which is still available here, caused quite some controversy for its defamatory statements about the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

A connection has also been drawn between Khalil and a campaign known as Operation Libyia. The supposed Libya-based tweeters are said to be in Zintan, one of the country’s besieged cities, and following an article written by Khalil about the death of one of their members, they encouraged online donations through PayPal, and are said to have raised about $500.

Written by Marc Owen Jones, the full investigative document, accounting for all of Khalil’s online activity can be found here.  While her many Twitter accounts, her Tumblr account  and even the Bahrain Independent, are no longer accessible, she has left a consierable online trail to be investigated.

As for Bikya Masr’s involvement, all communication with Khalil was via email, as the statement written by founder Joseph Mayton clarifies. Mayton told The Next Web that she contacted him via email, sending links to her work, as well as a link to a story picked up by the New York Times.

An online working relationship developed, in which she was given a Contributing Editor title for recruiting more writers. “She claimed that she was doing an interview with Mohamed El Baradei and that she had done a strategic planning meeting for their campaign but I never saw that. She also claimed that she was going to do an interview with Hanan Ashrawy and Hilary Clinton, and asked for a Bikya Masr email address to make it official, but nothing came of it,” Mayton explained.

The last article she wrote for Bikya Masr was in May, after which she informed Mayton that she was in hospital. “After reading the report, it all kind of makes sense. It’s pretty plausible that she’s on the payroll for the Bahraini government.” Mayton also told The Next Web that Khalil tried to set up a trip for him to go to Bahrain to write about human rights from the Bahraini government’s perspective,  but uncomfortable with the prospect, particularly with the crackdown taking place at the time, Mayton turned down the offer.

So who is Liliane Khalil? According to the report she has gone by the names Victoria Nasr, Gisele Mizrahi, Gisele Azrahi, Victoria Khedouri, and of course Gisele Cohen’s name has been thrown into the mix. The investigation is ongoing, and is attracting attention on Twitter, under the hashtag, LilianeKhalil.

The report concludes, “If you’ve reached this point and you’re still wondering who exactly Liliane Khalil is, then you’re in good company. Is she Gisele Cohen? Maybe. Is she Victoria Nasr? Perhaps. Is she Liliane Khalil? Almost certainly not. Is she even a journalist? Possibly, though an extremely unethical one. Where is she from? Is she really the Palestinian Arab Armenian who was born in the USA, educated in London, lived in Cairo, speaks Arabic, Turkish and English…It is perhaps equally intriguing to speculate as to why she suddenly went from supporting the Bahrain protests, to opposing them? Why did she start writing for the Bahrain Independent? If it is as official as they claim (with a US bureau and everything) then it would indicate the writers are being paid. If so by whom? Why has she had so many Twitter accounts? Why claim credit for things written by other people?”

As the report’s conclusion shows, there are still many questions surrounding Liliane Khalil’s existence, and very few answers.