herald

Tuesday 21 August 2018

US man is sorry for posing as lesbian blogger in Damascus

ANGER: Fake account of unrest criticised for putting gay Syrians in danger

A 40-year-old American man living in Scotland has said he is sorry for posing as a Syrian lesbian blogger who offered vivid accounts of life amid revolt and repression in Damascus.

Tom MacMaster said he created the fictional persona of Amina Arraf and the Gay Girl In Damascus blog to draw attention to conditions in a Middle East convulsed by change.

"I never meant to hurt anyone," the Edinburgh University student wrote in a long apology.

The university said it had suspended MacMaster's computer privileges.

And as the deceit unspooled, a second blogger known as Paula Brooks, who posted some of the fraudulent Arraf's comments on a lesbian news site, admitted to being a man.



deceit

It was reported that 'Brooks' was a 58-year-old retired US air force member named Bill Graber.

He claimed to have helped unmask MacMaster by tracking his posts to computer servers in Edinburgh.

Gay rights activists and bloggers say MacMaster's deceit has endangered real people who are trying to tell their stories in authoritarian societies.

"He completely stole the limelight of real LGBT bloggers and activists in the Middle East and diverted it in a negative way," said Dan Littauer of the website Gay Middle East.

Daniel Nassar, the pseudonym of a Syrian man affiliated with Gay Middle East, said MacMaster had put all gay Syrians in danger.

The blogs about life as a Syrian-American lesbian grabbed international attention.

Alongside video clips and erotic poems, the writer wrote about a childhood in Virginia, life as a gay woman in Damascus, the growing protest movement and hopes for a change.

For readers hungry for news of the uprisings sweeping the Arab world, it was gold dust -- a gripping, firsthand account of a country from which most foreign journalists are excluded.

The writer spoke about friends in Damascus, and outlined worries about her father and hopes for the future of her country, and seemed very much like a woman in the midst of the violent change gripping Syria.

On June 6, a post on the Arraf site, ostensibly by a cousin, said she'd been abducted by armed men in a Damascus street. The internet erupted with alarm. A 'Free Amina Arraf' Facebook page drew 14,000 supporters.

But bloggers began to go public with their growing doubts about Arraf's authenticity. Some thought a post describing how two plainclothes security agents came to her home to detain her and were persuaded to leave by her father sounded extremely implausible. Syria's hardline security services are not known as being easily dissuaded.



sleuths

Reporters in Virginia could find no trace of her or her family. Journalists could find no one who had ever met her.

Then online sleuths found an IP address used by Arraf was based at Edinburgh University.

They uncovered links between the blogger and an address in Georgia owned by MacMaster, a married American man currently studying for a master's degree at the University of Edinburgh.

Then a woman in Britain came forward to say the photos of 'Amina' on the blogger's Facebook page were of her. She had been unaware of the theft.

Faced with the mounting evidence, MacMaster first denied it, then confessed, posting an apology to readers.

MacMaster's wife, Britta Froelicher, said she understood that people felt hurt and angry about what her husband had done. She said he was apologetic for a situation that "backfired" and became uncontrollable.

Froelicher, a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said she had known that her husband was writing a blog, but had no idea that he had created a false character.

Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, said: "This underscores the age-old principle that you have to know your sources," he said. "You have to know who is feeding you this information."

hnews@herald.ie

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