What we can learn from the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax

June 13, 2011

From the Free Amina Facebook group.

Turns out that young, lesbian blogger in Syria was actually a middle-aged, Georgia-born, married white man, studying in Scotland. Tom MacMaster was on vacation in Turkey this weekend when he confessed to posing as Amina Arraf for five years on the Internet, and for five months on damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com.

The story began to unravel when the invented blogger’s “cousin” posted that Amina had been abducted by security forces. Several organizations snapped into action–The State Department launched an investigation, Avaaz started a letter writing campaign demanding her release, and major newspapers published word of her arrest. But all the attention also brought scrutiny and the pictures of Amina on her site were quickly found to be stolen photos from a London woman’s Facebook page. As The Washington Post points out, sources in Syria contacted NPR’s Andy Carvin, who has been one of the strongest social media forces during this Arab Spring. Carvin asked his nearly-50,000 followers if anyone had actually met Amina. Not a single person had. The Post chronicles the rest of the story–how a man looking to send Amina Christmas cards was given a Georgia address which eventually led to MacMaster. When confronted by what he’d done, MacMaster denied his involvement over and over, until the overwhelming evidence forced a confession.

His first “apology,” was upsetting:

I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. 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…

This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.

The hubris of this makes it almost laughable. Not only does he defend lying to people and organizations that wanted nothing more than to help a woman in trouble, but he–a white married man–had the gall to allude to the “pervasiveness” of “liberal Orientalism” while pretending to be a lesbian woman from Syria.

No doubt his fraud will be used to dredge up the media’s favorite topic of whether or not blogs are reliable, whether or not Twitter is reliable, whether or not you can trust journalists (people are dropping the names Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass online). But this isn’t a journalistic scandal: Tom MacMaster has very little in common with the reporters who have betrayed the public trust in the past by faking stories across a variety of topics over many years. They had no ideological premise (unless you count self-aggrandizement). MacMaster has much more in common with the misguided activists who have fooled the public with tales of victimization in order to advance an agenda.

In the early 90s, a student spray-painted “Dead chinks, good chinks” and “Death to Chinks Memorial” on an arch commemorating the Boxer Rebellion at Oberlin College. Students and professors alike were outraged–the tension on campus grew palpable as racist words were found spray-painted on students’ doors. But then the Oberlin Review received an anonymous letter from an Asian-American student claiming responsibility. The letter said the arch “glorified white accomplishment” and that the graffiti was meant to shine a light on the “racial politics on campus.” The student had faked these incidents in order to expose a narrative she believed to be true.  A similar stunt was staged at Princeton University by a young conservative student who said he’d been threatened and beaten because of his politics, when in fact he had caused the injuries to himself and had sent the threatening letters to several conservatives on campus.

What these cases have in common with the more recent examples of MacMaster and Becca Beushausen is that every single one of the perpetrators thought faking reports about a perceived truth was a valid form of advocacy. Well, it’s not. As Einstein said, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” We don’t get to make up truths just because we have a gut feeling the sentiments behind them exist. It not only undercuts reporters of real crimes and real life-changing experiences, it not only toys with people’s emotions, but it also can have the opposite-than-intended effect. The fact that a gay woman in Syria could blog for months on end without retribution may be too rosy a picture.

Journalism doesn’t need another black eye. This isn’t a case of a reporter who entered into a social contract and betrayed the trust of her colleagues and readers–it was fraud committed in the name of social justice (which in no way justifies it). Yes, major outlets reported on her disappearance but it was ultimately the media in the form of Twitter, blogs and newspapers that uncovered the fraud and set the record straight. We can only hope that honest people reporting from places like Syria with these technological tools won’t be ignored because of  lies like this.

Tom MacMaster may now understand the damage he’s done. In a follow up to his original apology, he seems to have been stripped of his arrogance:

Words alone do not suffice to express how badly I feel about all this. I betrayed the trust of a great many people, the friendship that was honestly and openly offered to me, and played with the emotions of others unfairly. I have distracted the world’s attention from important issues of real people in real places. I have potentially compromised the safety of real people. I have helped lend credence to the lies of the regimes. I am sorry.

Let’s hope this is a lesson for the next person who thinks faking a story is a valid way to advance an agenda.


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I just cant swallow this second apology either. I think Tom Macmaster has gauged the worlds reaction to his first one and written a new one that he thinks people want to hear. If he really was doing this for the Syrian cause, why did he create dating profiles, have a 6 month relationship with Sandra Bagaria and try and make a book deal? It all smacks of personal gratification to me.

Posted by jupitermoon | Report as abusive

This is all much simpler than your analysis. These are heterosexual white men. Of COURSE they have the right to speak for women, and people of color, and gay people, etc. Their reality is the only valid one, after all. That massive sense of entitlement cannot be faked.

The same thing goes for why these characters caught on so well. Real women, even gay ones in Damascus, have inconvenient realities. They criticize the wrong things. They care about things that don’t further a simple narrative. They’re conflicted. Real women, in fact are more difficult than fictional ones. I think about this fake gay woman flirting with the fake gay woman from Lez Get Real and I think how far from authentic concern about anyone… gays, Syrians, women, even themselves these men were. But the stories they told were easier for being inauthentic.

life is messy.

Posted by SheWho | Report as abusive

“But this isn’t a journalistic scandal: Tom MacMaster has very little in common with the reporters who have betrayed the public trust in the past by faking stories across a variety of topics over many years. They had no ideological premise (unless you count self-aggrandizement). MacMaster has much more in common with the misguided activists who have fooled the public with tales of victimization in order to advance an agenda.”

Yes and no. Of course it’s a journalistic scandal, in so far as many swallowed a nice story with insufficient caveats and without really noticing the problems. Yes – it was very difficult – but the point still sticks.

“Is reliable” has always been a partially silly question, as the real check is always on the source of the story; did they ask “is pen and paper reliable”.

A far more interesting question to me is “when are fakes, constructed narratives and hoaxes acceptable, and in what circumstances”.

I’m reflecting on the ‘constructed narratives’ we are always being told about victims of crime, and via reality cop shows.

Posted by mattwardman | Report as abusive

While much of the blame for this hoax falls squarely on the head of Tom MacMaster, this post lets journalists off the hook too easily. Why did so many journalists perpetuate the myths in the blog without questioning the blogger’s existence? Are journalists really looking for the truth, or just a good story? It is easy for a journalist to research the Syrian unrest from a (supposed) Westernized Syrian blogger who writes in English, but does that present the whole story of what is happening in Syria? I found it very interesting that throughout the online panic that Amina’s “disappearance” generated, most Syrian I encountered (I live in Damascus) had never even heard of her. Tom MacMaster duped a lot of people, but he didn’t dupe the Syrians.

Posted by sagha | Report as abusive

MacMaster has much more in common with the misguided activists who have fooled the public with tales of victimization in order to advance an agenda.

Uh, yeah, like the first Bush administration and their publicity agency that sold us reports of Iraqi soldiers stabbing babies in incubators in Kuwait. You mean those kinds of activists?

Posted by Seriously_1 | Report as abusive

Did not Benjamin Franklin do the same thing? And many other important and literary figures take on personas in order to reach an audience that would otherwise have shut their eyes and ears to a message simply because of the messenger?

You speak and say that these forms of communication are wrong, well perhaps they are, however often times in order to reach an audience they have to be willing to listen and in order to accomplish that there has to be a level of trust established.

Did people follow this ‘white middle aged sitting in Scotland pretending to be a lesbian Syrian’ because what he wrote was untrue or because they enjoyed the narrative and they found solace, understanding, and truth within the words he wrote? Bear in mind I did not follow this man ( woman? ) and therefore do not know if he lives up to the tradition of pseudo identities.

If you are only referring to the ‘kidnapping’ as being ‘wrong’ then that is interesting as well. Have there been legitimate kidnappings in Syria by security forces? Why are we not as outraged about those abductions? Because they are not Lesbian women? Again I simply ask this rhetorically for I do not think the ends justify the means in many cases and this is one where I feel personally, the man who has done this has done people a disservice, however I feel your view on it is overly critical without enough reflection.

Posted by Innocentious | Report as abusive

You tried hard to shore up the psyop, but really are you serious? “The fact that a gay woman in Syria could blog for months on end without retribution may be too rosy a picture.”

There are gay blogs in Syria and there have been for years.

I do not approve of homosexuality, and if you have a problem with my opinion on that, UP YOURS, because it is my opinion and my right. I don’t advocate mistreatment of any gay person but nor do I accept normalisation of what remains an abberation. However the “Gay scene” does get by, so long as it doesn’t make too much noise in Syria as some blogs from there make apparent.

Posted by RabbitNexus | Report as abusive

Rabbit, did you really say you don’t approve of homosexuality and if we don’t like it up yours?!? That is hilarious.

What this man and his LezGetReal cohort have done is despicable. They betrayed trusts and made a travesty of important issues. I just hope they do not profit from this duplicity in any way. Ever.

Posted by JerseyBookworm | Report as abusive

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