Last June The Electronic Intifada exposed the identity of the person behind the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax. The perpetrator was Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American graduate student at the University of Edinburgh.
After a surge of media attention, MacMaster disappeared from the public eye. The University of Edinburgh promised to investigate. But what happened, and was MacMaster ever held accountable for a hoax that many believe caused genuine harm?
Documents released by the University of Edinburgh under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act reveal that not only was MacMaster allowed to stay on as a student, but that the university sought as much as possible to gag him while never publishing any results of its investigation. The documents are highly redacted because the university is “subject data protection legislation which restricts the information [they] are allowed to disclose about [their] students” (page 1 of documents).
A hoax that could have put lives at risk
MacMaster’s blog, “Gay Girl in Damascus,” featured a character named Amina Arraf who was a US citizen, lesbian, literate and leftist. Tom had written as Amina Arraf before, but this time his work would achieve international notoriety and similarly earn him international scorn.
The “Gay Girl in Damascus” was written to appeal directly to liberal, English-speaking readers. Moreover, Syria has been in a state of near media blackout especially since the breakout of revolts there in March.
In June, before going on vacation to Turkey with his wife, Britta Froelicher, MacMaster introduced a plot twist: Amina Arraf was mysteriously seized from the streets of Damascus. This led to genuine and global concern that a real person had been seized and faced imminent harm at a time when activists and bloggers were facing repression by Syrian authorities.
The subsequent disclosure that Amina was a fictional character led to concern that the plight of real activists would be discounted or ignored and thus real lives would be endangered by MacMaster’s deception.
Moreover, MacMaster had not only created the Amina character, but other fake identities, particularly Amina’s “cousin” Rania O. Ismail. It was “Rania” who announced Amina’s abduction.
The characters Rania Ismail and Amina Arraf had Facebook and other social media profiles that were linked to and engaged in conversations with Palestinian and other activists in the solidarity movement. When the Amina character was kidnapped before Tom went on vacation and doubts surfaced about the veracity of the story, members of this community became very suspicious and uncomfortable with this intricate attempt to infiltrate their networks.
MacMaster exploited vulnerable audiences and real communities to perpetrate his hoax.
The University of Edinburgh investigates
After the hoax was exposed by The Electronic Intifada, worldwide media attention focused on Tom MacMaster and also the University of Edinburgh, where he was enrolled in a masters program in Medieval Studies. Many people wondered how the university would respond to MacMaster’s behavior, which many felt violated ethics and perhaps even the law.
San Francisco activist and blogger Michael Petrelis obtained highly redacted documents related to the university’s two investigations of Tom MacMaster. From these documents, it is clear that Tom MacMaster was allowed to remain a student at the university on condition that he not continue to create deceptive, fictitious personas on the Internet and that he not discuss his activities with the media or in public.
MacMaster may have continued to use sockpuppets after the hoax was exposed. On 24 June, someone posted defensive comments on Mondoweiss from the same IP address associated with “Amina Arraf.” MacMaster denied making the comments himself but concedes that he enlisted friends to defend his reputation online.
The first evidence of discipline is the university’s official statement on 13 June 2011, the day after the hoax was exposed.
The University will investigate whether the student has breached University computing regulations. The Principal has directed Vice Principal Knowledge Management and Chief Information Officer [CIO] Jeff Haywood to suspend the student’s computing privileges pending the outcome of the investigation.
Finally a letter written by Vice Principal for Equality and Diversity, Professor Lorraine Waterhouse and CIO Jeff Haywood (28 June 2011 on page 29) demands of MacMaster
You must give, in writing, an unequivocal assurance that you will not engage in any further actions of this kind whilst a student of this university.
MacMaster responded on 1 July 2011 in a letter (page 30) that says in part:
I will not engage in any further actions of this kind whilst a student of the university.
Another message to a third party (page 32) on 4 July 2011 suggests that the university has gagged Macmaster from talking about the hoax. CIO Jeff Haywood writes:
I have a written committment from Mr. MacMaster to refrain from any engagement in public with this subject.
Enormous press interest
The material also includes a list of press coverage from the University of Edinburgh’s Press Office (page 7) from 17 June 2011. The Tom MacMaster affair dominates the list with 40 international mentions. Several messages in the released material show inquiries from journalists asking basic questions about Tom MacMaster’s status at the university, the university’s plans to investigate or discipline him as a student. However, the university avoided making any comments, and administrators even tried to avoid confirming that MacMaster was even a student (page 22).
The University was uncomfortable with MacMaster’s activities
The University was clearly uncomfortable with the attention Tom MacMaster brought to them. In one message on 1 July 2011 (page 31), an unknown person writes to CIO Jeff Haywood. Most of the message is redacted, but another message dated 30 June 2011 is quoted where Mr. Haywood writes:
I hope you understand my reasons for not writing more fully. This is a sensitive issue for the University of Edinburgh.
And later on 4 July 2011 (page 32), Mr. Haywood replies to the same person and reiterates:
Let us hope that this unfortunate episode is close to an end.
The redacted material contains very little details about how the university conducted its investigation. Much of the emails contained in the released information are efforts to schedule phone calls to discuss the affair. These phone calls of course don’t leave a paper trail that can be requested with a freedom of information request.
A concerned third party
The unknown person who communicated by email (page 31-32) with Jeff Haywood appears to have provided information about Tom MacMaster to the university, and Mr. Haywood acknowledges
We are aware of some of what you have written below and will take that, plus the new information from you, alongside our own evidence, into account when reaching a decision as to how to proceed in Mr. Macmaster’s case.
Whatever the concerns were that were raised, the don’t appear to have had much impact on MacMaster. In the end, it seems that the University of Edinburgh’s main concern was to protect its reputation.
The 55 page document released by the University of Edinburgh
The Electronic Intifada thanks Michael Petrelis for sharing this material he obtained.