Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American man, pulled off the biggest Internet hoax of all time.
MacMaster posed as a young, female, and gay Syrian blogger named Amina Arraf who was openly critical of the repressive Syrian government. Arraf, already popular, was catapulted to international fame when MacMaster posted that she had been kidnapped by the Assad regime.
The media picked up her story. The Internet community was outraged. The US State Department even got involved because her fans in American brought it to their attention. Meanwhile, it fueled public anger in Syria and further vilified the Syrian regime in the international arena.
To date, there hasn’t been a bigger Internet hoax.
Famous online hoaxes were either ridiculous stories (e.g. the Cambodian Midget Fighting League) or fake identities that attracted large Internet followings (e.g. Kaycee Nicole).
However, what they lacked was international impact, which MacMaster achieved.
MacMaster is a gifted writer. He also knew his Arabic culture. The writing he produced on his fake blog was heart-tugging, authentic, and struck a deep chord. It was sharp social commentary on Syria and the Middle East. At the same time, it was an intensely personal story of a young woman fighting for her self-identity.
No wonder the public ate it up, especially the Western public because MacMaster wrote in flawless (and poetic) English. That Arraf can do that is believable because she claimed to be half-American and partially raised in America.
But the real secret sauce to MacMaster’s ‘success’ is a perfect storm of circumstances, namely both the outcry for freedom in Syria and the repression of information by the government.
The only reason major media organizations picked up the story was because there was no way to confirm its falseness (Syria’s regime denies journalists access). Even media organizations in Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country, fell for it.
It was also too good of a story to pass up, both for the media and the public. Arraf’s courage in the face of tyranny and yearn for justice and freedom simply could not be ignored in the wave of unprecedented democratic uprisings that’s sweeping the Middle East.