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Man Behind Syrian Blogger Hoax: Something 'Innocent ... Got Out Of Hand'
Tom MacMaster, the man who admitted he was behind the Gay Girl In Damascus blog, said the blog was something that was created "innocently and then got out of hand."
"I mean there was no malice on my part at any point, no intention of really running a massive hoax," MacMaster told us in a telephone interview from Turkey, where he is vacationing with his wife Britta Froelicher.
Over the last several months, Amina Araf, a blogger who said she was Syrian-American and went by the name Gay Girl In Damascus, captured the world's attention. Her blog became popular just as the protests against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria spread and the government crackdowns became more violent.
As we reported yesterday, MacMaster, an American from Georgia who is in a medieval studies graduate program at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, revealed that Amina did not exist and that he was the sole author of the blog.
The announcement confirmed the doubts that emerged when NPR's Andy Carvin asked his followers on Twitter if anyone had ever met Amina. No one had. Then the British newspaper, The Guardian ran a profile of the blogger and they got a call from Jelena Lecic, a Londoner, who told them the picture of Amina was really a picture of her.
In our interview, MacMaster, 40, said he didn't recall what year he created the Amina character, but a Yahoo! messaging group called "alternate-history" has records of Amina as far back as February of 2006.
MacMaster said he created Amina so he could "have a discussion about the real questions" on subjects like the Middle East or U.S. involvement in Iraq. He said with a name like Tom, people would immediately question his alliance to the U.S. But with Amina, people would engage in full conversations.
Tom posted on different websites and listservs as Amina and suddenly he found himself with an "extremely full and vivid character." He wrote a backstory for her and started writing a novel based on her. As a way to flesh the character out, he created profiles of Amina on different social networking sites to create a "depth of character."
He used Amina's profile, he said, so he could snoop around sites that Tom couldn't. And he was living the character so much, he would walk into restaurants and know immediately, what Amina would like on a menu and what she wouldn't like:
For years, his interactions had no consequences. His relationships were strictly about discussing issues like science ficition and Mid-East politics, but earlier this year things changed.
He logged on to a lesbian news site called LezGetReal and left a couple of comments on a couple of articles on Syria. That got him the notice of the website's editor, Paula Brooks who asked Amina to write for her:
"I was flattered," MacMaster said, because he wanted to be a writer.
He wrote a few pieces for LezGetReal and then decided to start a blog of his own — Gay Girl In Damascus — to chronicle Amina's stories. That came not too long after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the deposed president of Tunisia. It also marked the beginning of the Arab Spring.
MacMaster says if this had happened a year ago, no one would have noticed a blog about Syria. No one, he said, would have cared. But things in Syria exploded, as protests against president al-Assad, who's family has been in power for some 40 years, intensified. Gay Girl In Damascus' sharp tongue and vivid storytelling called attention and it called more attention after MacMaster wrote a post about having a run-in with Syrian security.
Amina got media attention and that, said MacMaster, felt good.
"When I got a first couple initial media bites, I was extremely flattered and impressed with myself that here I had written something that was fictional but it was getting taken seriously as a real event," he said. "It appealed to my vanity that here I am, I'm so smart, I can do this."
But at the same time he knew he had taken it far enough. MacMaster said he thought when he had moved the Amina character to Damascus in the fall of last year, he was going to walk away from it. But the Arab Spring called her back. He said she would have a lot of things to say about it. But keeping up with Amina was taking up one to two hours of each day and his story was unraveling.
So he decided he would have Amina kidnapped by Syrian authorities. Here's how he narrated what happened next:
What MacMaster never expected was the outpouring of support for Gay Girl In Damascus. Facebook groups formed around her, calling for her freedom and even the State Department sought to get involved to try and help her out of the situation she was in.
"I was supremely stupid and miscalculating and I shouldn't have created that story" MacMaster said. "But I needed to shut things down and everything's been shut down."
Since MacMaster's confession went up, the reaction from the blogosphere has been harsh. A lot of criticism thrown his way was that he had thrown all bloggers in the Middle East into question, both in their countries and in the Middle East.
MacMaster said he's well aware of that and he "feels awful."
"I've created a situation where people are going to be extremely irritated with me and I don't blame them," he said.
MacMaster said that was part of the reason he kept Amina going. If he was discovered, the Syrian government could point to him and say "see how these foreigners are trying to malign our country:"
"If I continued with the mascarade, I could keep from creating that situation for them," he said.
But beyond the public space, Amina also had one-on-one relationships with real people. We reported on Sandra Bagaria, a Canadian who exchanged e-mails with Amina for more than six months. Bagaria was hurt when she started suspecting that the person she had been talking to was not real.
In his post yesterday, MacMaster said he had not hurt anyone, but today he acknowledged that he would extend a personal apology to Bagaria. Here's our exchange about that:
"I feel really guilty and bad about it," he said. "I'm feeling alot of contrition and depression, which I guess I'll deal with once this has started to settle [down]. It's just being a stupid jerk."
MacMaster said Amina was born out of a fascination with the Middle East. He said he's been so enthralled with Syria, for example, that he was banned from Wikipedia for making too many edits on the country.
In a piece, yesterday, The Washington Post paints a portrait of MacMaster that has him as a Middle-East peace advocate who grew up in a Mennonite household in Harrisonburgh, Va. His mother told the Post that "He was raised in a family that has a warm feeling for the Middle East." He attended Emory University and travelled to Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War on a peace mission.
MacMaster said he learned three things throughout this ordeal:
The first, he said, is like a New Yorker cartoon, in which a dog is at a computer and the caption says, "On the Internet no one knows you're a dog."
"That cartoon could be my motto," he said.
The second is that people have a propensity to believe. And the third, he said, is that media coverage of the Middle of East is "superficial," that no one stopped to question him. (As a side note, in order to confirm that MacMaster was indeed in control of the Gay Girl In Damascus blog, we asked MacMaster to make a small change on the blog. We verified that he indeed controls the blog.)
MacMaster said that at this point, he wants to put this behind him. He said that he alone controls the blog and even his wife had no idea about Amina until the blog became popular.
"Hopefully everything will blow over," he said, "and people can really focus on the real human tragedy of what's really happening in Syria."