On Sunday, after a week-long investigation, we learned that the author behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog was not a gay Syrian-American woman named Amina Abdallah Arraf abducted in Syria for her dissident political and social views. Instead it was a 40-year-old American Middle East activist named Tom MacMaster working on his master's degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Over the last 24 hours, MacMaster has changed the title of his blog from "A Gay Girl in Damascus" to "A Hoax that got way out of hand," penned two posts apologizing to readers, and granted several interviews. Here's how he's rationalized his actions:
- An Undercovered Middle East Voice: MacMaster initially dismissed the notion that he'd harmed anyone, writing that while the blog's "narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true." He felt he'd "created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about" and tried to "illuminate them for a western audience." The media frenzy surrounding his hoax, he added, "has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism."
- Good Intentions Gone Awry: MacMaster is more repentant in a follow-up post today, calling himself the "worst person in the world," acknowledging the harm he's caused, and explaining that his 'Gay Girl in Damascus' adventure "started innocently enough." He says he first created his Amina Arraf persona--a "distinctly Arab and female identity"--so that he could comment on news sites and listservs about issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without being ignored or "accused of hating America, Jews, etc." But soon, he adds, she became a kind of digital Frankenstein, coming "alive," assuming the identity of a woman on Facebook MacMaster had never met "who looked exactly like what Amina should look like," and "dictating" her story to MacMaster even when he tried to "kill" her. "I only wanted to set forth real information through the use of artfully crafted fiction."
What damage has MacMaster done? Here's what people are saying:
- Lent Credence to Syrian Regime's Narrative: Syria's state-run media has long argued that the international coverage of the Syrian uprising is nothing but a pack of lies, and indeed the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency is gleefully reporting that "MacMaster's hoax aimed at enhancing continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of kidnapping bloggers and activists."
- Distracted Media and International Community From Syrian Uprising: As NPR's Andy Carvin, one of several journalists spearheading last week's research into Amina Arraf's identity, tweeted, "If we could only calculate the sheer number of hours we spent this week on #Amina, each one of which was an hour spent not on Syria itself."
- Undermined Support for Middle Eastern Bloggers: "You have forever tarnished the reputation of bloggers in this region who chose to write in English," writes a Lebanese blogger who identifies himself as Mustapha. "One day if I'm kidnapped by my government, many readers won't care because I could turn out to be another Amina."
- Endangered LGBT Syrians: "Because of you, Mr. MacMaster, a lot of the real activists in the LGBT community became under the spotlight of the authorities in Syria," argues a gay Syrian activist named Daniel Nassar.
- Cast Doubt on Citizen Journalism in Middle East: The Washington Post's Melissa Bell and Elizabeth Flock note that "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"--especially as regimes in the Middle East restrict foreign media access during the Arab Spring. At Al Arabiya, Muna Khan wonders what will happen to the thousands detained in Syria--"those who have as much courage as the hoax Amina but no avenue to get their voices heard. Will journalists who didn’t have the time to verify facts before giving Amina the international fame she received suddenly back off or labor over each detail before printing--by which it could be too late for the real Aminas out there?"