And 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 tantalizing 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 apologized on the blog. “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading 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 fictionalized 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 United States. 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.
The author unmasked
In telephone interviews and e-mail exchanges with The Post 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.
“Look, if I was the genius who had pulled this off, I would say, ‘Yeah,’ and write a book,” he said Friday, reached in Istanbul, where he is vacationing with his wife, a graduate student working on a PhD in international relations.
News organizations around the world, including The Washington Post, reported on the blogger’s disappearance Tuesday. As the story spread, three Syrian sources contacted Andy Carvin of NPR with their doubts; he, in turn, asked the more than 48,000 people who follow him on Twitter whether anyone had met Amina or spoken to her on the phone. None said they had.