Human rights campaigners reacted furiously after a US student based in Scotland unmasked himself as the author of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blogs, which charted the security crackdown in Syria.
Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old Edinburgh University masters student, admitted on Sunday that he was “Amina Abdallah Arraf”, who had described herself as a Syrian political blogger.
The Abdallah character rose to fame with her reports on the pro-reform movement, posting as “an out Syrian lesbian’s thoughts on life, the universe and so on”.
Last Tuesday, someone claiming to be her cousin wrote on the website that Abdallah had been snatched off the street by three armed men and bundled into a car bearing a pro-government window sticker.
The report caused a wave of alarm among her online followers. Supporters set up a “Free Amina Abdallah” group on the social networking site Facebook, attracting nearly 15,000 followers.
But doubts began to emerge as to whether Abdallah was real. The Electronic Intifada website connected an address provided by the online persona with MacMaster, and other media outlets also began to question Abdallah’s identity.
MacMaster finally came clean in a posting on his blog on Sunday and admitted that he was the sole author of the posts.
“I never expected this level of attention,” MacMaster wrote in an “Apology to readers” posted on the blog.
“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 Guardian, a UK newspaper, said that in recent days, bloggers had uncovered evidence that pointed towards MacMaster and his wife Britta Froelicher.
MacMaster is a Middle East activist, while his wife is studying at Scotland’s St Andrews University for a doctorate in Syrian economic development.
In his apology, MacMaster said he had been touched by the reaction of readers.
But the revelation of the hoax has sparked fury among some former followers of the blog, particularly those who had been campaigning for Abdallah’s release.
“This just makes me so angry,” said one comment on the Facebook group, set up to press for her release.
“The situation in Syria is too dire for this sort of gameplaying!”
“Time and effort was taken away from other vitally important news stories happening in Syria,” another contributor said.
A spokesman for Jelena Lecic, the woman whose photos were linked to Abdallah’s Facebook profile, has said Lecic, who is based in London, first learned her likeness was being used when it was linked to article about Abdallah in the Guardian.
The spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday’s apology.