Social Media In A Time Of War – Is The Truth Out There?

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The young boy, freshly rescued from a basement in Mosul’s Old City district, looks past the lens of the low definition camera phone, to answer the soldier’s question.

“It’s the flag of the apostates,” he replies looking at the Iraqi flag.

This child is around three-years-old, perhaps older if malnutrition has stunted his growth. He picks at an apple, given to him by the Iraqi soldiers that saved him. Another man says, “He is from Chechnya.” It’s unverifiable, like almost all of the personal videos taken by soldiers, and widely shared.

This conflict, covered so instantly and comprehensively across social media, adheres to so many adages about war, truth and the speed with which misinformation spreads. Unofficial military source videos such as these are subjective by their nature.

Since the video surfaced on Facebook and Twitter, local agencies, international journalists with huge followings, pro-ISIL, anti-ISIL, thousands of accounts have reposted it. It’s compelling, of course, the basic language and ideology of the extremists, uttered by an innocent.

It’s not as shocking as the image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Bodrum beach. It’s not as violent as ISIL propaganda videos, or the more recent mobile phone footage of apparent summary executions of suspected extremists by Iraqi forces.

Nonetheless, it is uncomfortable viewing, auto-playing again and again on timelines. The photo of baby Alan brought the plight of Syrian refugees into sharper focus across the world, sparking debate. The videos of murders – by ISIL militants or Iraqi forces – will hopefully have a day in court, and help convict the perpetrators.

But does this video of a young child (unable to give consent to his image’s widespread dissemination) bring anything newsworthy to the table? Some will argue that it’s important to report examples of the indoctrination of a new generation by ISIL. Perhaps, but we’d expect a child of this age will adapt to his new environment, and that is the more pressing story – what happens to the orphans, of which there are unimaginable numbers, and in particular the orphans of foreign fighters? Both of these stories have been widely covered and continue to be, in environments less ethically problematic.

There was a second viral story connected with the Mosul operations and foreign fighters over the last couple of days. It is a fine example of social media to-ing and fro-ing, when the original source is tenuous enough for questions to be raised and for agendas to be pushed.

On 15 June respected Iraqi journalist Steven Nabil reported that a female sniper had been arrested in Mosul. The German woman was said to be 18-years-old, and had a child by a now-deceased Chechen fighter. The images that accompanied the incident showed an emaciated, frightened, confused looking woman, forced into selfies with her victorious captors. They told Nabil that she spoke only broken Arabic, and some English. There were further, more prurient details. The woman was handed over to Counter Terrorism Forces for interrogation.

At around the same time, local agencies were variously reporting that the woman was Russian – an assumption on her looks, it appears – or Yazidi. It was the second claim that gained traction.

The rumour began with someone incorrectly comparing the woman to the national ID of Nedal Khalid Koro, a Yazidi girl kidnapped from Sinjar in 2014, when she was just 10-years-old.

One popular Facebook page attacked Nabil online, posting his original story captioned:

“When will you stop making things up? The Operation’s command and the military media have both confirmed that the young woman is Yazidi. This guy would kiss the ass of anyone with money.”

There was an inevitable social media melee, and Nabil felt compelled to reply.

“Two days ago, I received a message from a soldier in the Counter Terrorism Forces. He is a patriot and I trust him. He told me that they had arrested an 18 year old German woman with a child.

“When pictures of the woman being arrested were spread on social media pages yesterday, I sent them to the CTF guy, and he confirmed to me that she is the one he told me about.”

Nabil gave further details of the operation, and conceded in a subsequently deleted post that he may have made a mistake by reporting from one source alone: “There were two other women (who weren’t ISIL) and three male ISIL militants with her. All three claimed that the woman is German … I only said that she is German based on what the soldiers, whose names I can’t reveal, told me.”

Yalla spoke with Nedal’s father, Khalid Koro yesterday 16 June. “I saw the photos of the woman on social media, but wasn’t sure if the young woman was my daughter,” he said by telephone, adding, “I went to where the regiment that found the woman were residing, but they informed me that she has been taken to Baghdad.”

Khalid contacted Yazidi MP Haji Gandur in Baghdad (also Nedal’s uncle), who managed to meet the woman. Gandur told Khalid that the woman was not Nedal, but was in fact a German sniper. This was further confirmed by Gandur’s high profile colleague Vian Dakhil, on Twitter 17 July.

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Extracting the truth from the social media postings of unofficial military sources can be difficult, if not impossible. It’s dangerously simple for the narrative to be twisted to suit an agenda.

At lunchtime 18 June, Bjorn Stritzel, correspondent for the German publication BILD, claimed the woman is a 16-year-old known to German media at ‘Linda W’. There has been no official confirmation of her identity, of whether she was an active combatant.

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