As far as internet hoaxes go, this one was a doozy.
The story goes as follows: A popular blog called "A Gay Girl in Damascus" began receiving lots of attention around the world as the Syrian uprising turned violent and deadly. The blog was particularly striking not just because it described the challenging life of a lesbian in a closed, conservative Middle Eastern society, but because of its open anti-Syrian regime bent in a country well-known for hard repression.
The attention paid to the blog went through the roof when the alleged girl behind the blog, named "Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari," was said to have been kidnapped by Syrian authorities. An internet campaign demanding her release followed. International news wires, newspapers, TV shows and the like, including CBS News, began running stories, often with a picture of a beautiful, short-haired girl accompanying them.
Then, Syrian activists and journalists around the world began to cast doubt on the whole story.
Well, it turns out the doubters were right.
The blog was a hoax, written by Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old Middle East activist from America studying for a masters at Edinburgh University, according to several news reports, as well as MacMaster's own account.
On the blog, MacMaster most recently posted in a piece titled "Apology to readers": "I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative vo?ce may have been fictional, the facts on th?s blog are true and not m?sleading 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."
Insisting that he was simply trying to draw attention to the violence in Syria, MacMaster appears to be lashing out at the inevitable critics for his deception, when he said: "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."
Actual lesbian and gay activists in the Middle East reacted with rage to the story, The Guardian reports, saying they put themselves in real mortal danger investigating "Amina"'s alleged disappearance.
As for the fetching woman in the photos, it turns out that that's Jelena Lecic, a London woman, who has not made herself available for comment on the whole affair.
NPR writer and social media expert Andy Carvin is largely given credit for breaking the story. Carvin writes: "The revelation came hours after NPR approached Britta Froelicher, (MacMaster's) wife, with some evidence that connected her with Gay Girl In Damascus. Other news organizations appeared to be zeroing in on the couple, too. Over the past week, we've been talking to people who kept in contact with "Amina." Some of them had been in contact with this online persona for as long as five years."
MacMaster reportedly initially denied being "Amina" when contacted by the Washington Post. After five years, it just may have been hard to let her go.