Syrian lesbian blogger was male American hoaxer


When a blogger abruptly went missing, her disappearance became an internet and media sensation, write Melissa Bell and Elizabeth Flock

FOR nearly a week, the world followed the saga of Amina Arraf, the blogger who was celebrated for her passionate, often intimate writings about the Syrian government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters. Those writings stopped abruptly last Monday, and in a posting on her blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, a cousin said Amina had been hauled away by government security agents.

News of her disappearance became an internet and media sensation. The US state department started an investigation. But almost immediately sceptics began asking whether anyone ever actually met Amina? On Wednesday, pictures of her on the blog were revealed to have been taken from a London woman’s Facebook page.

And on Sunday, the truth spilled out. The gay girl in Damascus confessed to being a 40-year-old American man from Georgia.

The persona Tom MacMaster built and cultivated for years – a lesbian who was half Syrian and half American – was a tantalising internet-era fiction, one that he used to bring attention to the human rights record of a country where media restrictions make traditional reporting almost impossible.

On Sunday, MacMaster apologised on the blog. “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” he wrote.

“I do not believe that I have harmed anyone – I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.” MacMaster, a Middle East peace activist who is working on his master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, wrote that he fictionalised the account of a gay woman in Syria to illuminate the situation for a western audience.

The hoax raises difficult questions about the reliance on blogs, tweets, Facebook postings and other internet communications as they increasingly become a standard way to report on global events. Information from online sources has become particularly important in coverage of the Middle East uprisings, especially in countries that severely restrict foreign media – or that use social media against protesters.

MacMaster had used Amina as an identity online for at least five years.

He started the blog in February, shortly after Amina told people she moved back to Syria from the US. Amina’s story might have remained believable, but when he wrote of her arrest, her fans – in a desire to help the woman they had grown to care about – found a trail of evidence that led back to MacMaster.

In telephone interviews and e-mail exchanges over the past three days, MacMaster initially denied any connection to Amina. He insisted he had never heard of her or the blog before the news of the arrest broke.

News organisations around the world reported on the blogger’s disappearance last Tuesday. The Wall Street Journalreported the following day that Amina had been using another woman’s photographs.

The Washington Post contacted Scott Palter, a board game creator from Minnesota who corresponded regularly with Amina on a Yahoo message group called “The Crescentland”. Palter said that he asked her several years ago for a mailing address to send her Christmas cards and that she gave him an address in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Local real estate records show that MacMaster has owned the house since 2000 and that he and his wife lived there until they left for Scotland in September 2010.

On Friday, the editor of Lez Get Real,a lesbian news website based in Washington, told readers she and Amina had corresponded after Amina posted a thoughtful comment on her site. The editor said she had determined that Amina’s e-mails had been sent from a computer in Edinburgh.

Amina told her that for security reasons, she used a proxy web server that made it appear she was writing from Scotland. It is a common tactic used by Syrian bloggers, many of whom write online anonymously.

MacMaster’s interest in Syria seems to have been deepened by his 2007 marriage to Britta Froelicher, a woman he met in Georgia through an online dating site.

MacMaster said that he and Froelicher travelled to Syria in 2008 and Froelicher said she is working on a PhD at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, focusing on Syrian economic development.

While in Syria in 2008, Froelicher and MacMaster posted a photo on Picasa, a photo website, showing a billboard of a smiling Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, with the slogan: “Syria believes in you.” The newly married couple captioned the photograph: “My favourite little piece of propaganda of all time.” This year, on May 11th, that image – showing the same motorcyclist and pedestrians passing by the billboard – appeared on Amina’s blog. The post was titled “Irony”. The controversy over “A Gay Girl in Damascus” has created anguish among her fans. As suspicions of a hoax grew, many expressed outrage that attention had turned away from the increasingly violent government crackdown in Syria.

The controversy has also angered many in the lesbian and gay community, which rallied around Amina.

And it has raised concerns among bloggers who complain that MacMaster exploited their trust and may have jeopardised their ability to use pseudonyms. – (Washington Post)