If the story wasn’t so rife with lies, deception, and exploitation, it would actually read like a fun detective story! The blog Gay Girl in Damascus was presented as one written by a Syrian-American girl living through and blogging about the increasingly violent protests against President Bashar al-Assad. For many months, the blogger–who went by the name Amina–gained attention and a loyal following. She even wrote for other sites like LezGetReal, a news site with a lesbian perspective. For all intents and purposes, Amina was a great writer and the blog was a great read. Says NPR:
“In a lot of ways, the accessibility of the blog was likely the reason it got so much attention. Since February, it has been filled with posts that are dramatic and compelling and full of action. Amina had love interests and a father with failing health. She was a gay woman living in a country where being gay is illegal. She was a girl with close ties to the Assad regime but with heartfelt sympathy for the aspirations of an oppressed people. She spoke against Assad and his iron fist with literary flair and with an unflinching and courageous tongue.”
And, really, everything was fine and dandy until June 6, when a blog post penned by Amina’s cousin announced that the young woman had gone missing. Suddenly, thousands of Amina’s loyal readers and friends sprung to action. And while some of that action was in the form of efforts to find the girl, other efforts probed into her identity. This is where Amina and the blog Gay Girl in Damascus crumbled. And underneath that compelling writing and poingnant storytelling was a hairy dude from Georgia named Tom MacMaster.
Funny. She doesn’t look Syrian. Or feminine.
Here’s how the public was able to put the pieces together.
When The Guardian published a profile on the missing girl a day after her disappearance, it was discovered that the picture of her provided posted on the blog is actually of a woman from London. Hmmm. After this, other personal details about Amina’s life (including her parents’ names and her childhood in Virginia) are not corroborated by any public documents.
There was a Yahoo group administered by Amina, and at one point she provided a member with an address in Georgia to which the person could send personal correspondance. This address was for a house in Stone Mountain and the property was owned by a certain Tom MacMaster.
Working with this MacMaster name, journalists were able to locate a public Picassa album. When another online friend of Amina’s provided pictures that the blogger had emailed, they matched those posted to MacMaster’s wife’s online album (which was public at the time–it’s since been made private).
The LezGetReal angle. Once buzz about Amina’s actual identity began to surface, the editor of the site, Paula Brooks, came forth with her own misgivings. She had, when Amina first began writing on her site, confronted the girl about her IP address. Amina, of course, claimed to be living in Syria, but her IP located her in Scotland. Amina quickly explained that she used a proxy server for protection against the Syrian government–which was a perfectly reasonable explanation–and Brooks never thought more of it. Last week, however, Brooks looked a bit closer and discovered that the IP pointed to Edinburgh for every one of Amina’s 135 logins. This was no proxy server, folks. (And guess where Tom MacMaster is working on his post graduate? DINGDING! University of Edinburgh.)
Exhibit E, or, The Confession:
After The Washington Post tracked down MacMaster and presented him with the growing mound of evidence connecting him to Amina, he initially denied everything. However, just yesterday, he came clean with a post on the very blog in question:
“I never expected this level of attention. 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. 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.
I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.
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.
However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.”
So, where does that leave us?
Facebook page dedicated to spreading the news about Amina’s disappearance.
Well, angry for one. And not *just* because this dude is trying to shift the blame for his own manipulative behavior. While it’s easy for him to pass the blog off as merely fiction, he clearly knew he was committing fraud when he presented himself to LezGetReal as Amina. Beyond that, he mislead and deceived all his readers–readers who genuinely believe his stories to be that of a Syrian-American lesbian, not some doofy scholarly type from Georgia.
And KNOWING this, what did he THINK would happen when he announced that Amina had gong missing? That she may in fact be undergoing torture or worse at the hands of Syrian government officials? Did he think those readers would be all, “Oh well…” and stumble for a new blog without a second thought? I mean, the freakin’ American government got involved at one point.
A Che-Guevara-Wearing-a-Bart-Simpson-Shirt Shirt? Klassy, Tom.
And in the end, the man only served to divert attention from the turmoil in Syria. Sure, he may have brought attention to it at first, but it wasn’t honest. By making up a story about a girl from Syria, he basically took a voice away from a real one. THERE ARE PLENTY OF REAL PEOPLE SUFFERING IN SYRIA, TOM. At some point, the man HAD to realize that this would not end well, for crying out loud, and if he can’t see that for what it is, then he’s dumber than I already think he is. The fact that he cannot bring himself to acknowledge this or issue a sincere apology overpowers any initial compassion I had for the dude.