BOB: There are many ways to lose control of your own media narrative, and one such is to have your story twisted by a self-interested third party. Or, worse still, to have your story twisted by TWO self-interested third parties when the stakes are life or death for countless innocents. Consider “Rehana” an attractive former law student who took up arms on behalf of the Kurdish militia battling ISIS.The Rehena story turns out to be, for some news outlets, too good to check. Craig Silverman of the rumor-tracking website Emergent wrote a piece about Rehana this week. Craig, welcome back.
SILVERMAN : Thank you.
BOB: THis strange begins as so many do, with a Swedish photographer? Tell me.
SILVERMAN: Apparently it does. In late August a Swedish journalist named Carl Drott is in Kobane and he watches the creation of a new unit - a home unit as they're called. And these are Kurdish fighters who are going to support the fighters at the front. The local police in that particular town. And one of the people there is this woman. And he takes a photo of her and he talks to her. But he doesn't get her name. And he ends up mentioning her and quoting her in an article he did for Haaretz - the Israeli newspaper. That sort of leaves it there for a little while. Until about the middle of October when a journalist / activist tweets a photo of her claiming that her name is Rehana and she's killed 100 Islamic State fighters.
BOB: Which is a quite a feat for somebody's who's really on the home guard, presumably not really encountering much in the way of battle. Nonetheless, I'm sitting here looking at a International Business Times headline from October 14 and it says 'Heroine of Kobane: Kurdish female fighter Rehana kills 100 ISIS jihadis single-handedly.' I'm going to take a wild guess and say that it begins with her being kind of adorable. Very sweet smile and she's making the V-sign in the original photograph taken by the journalist.
SILVERMAN: Well that's one of the interesting pieces of it. We have no idea as of right now who took this photo of her. The photo that Carl Drott is her standing among other fighters. Sort of at attention. And then there's this other photo - the one that ends-up everywhere - which is her smiling at the camera showing the V-sign, giving a beautiful smile. Nobody knows who took that photo.
BOB: So she became a kind of meme in camouflage fatigues. The same story was passed along fairly uncritically by the mainstream press as well. How big a media presence did Rehana have?
SILVERMAN: One piece of it on social media is that one tweet was retweeted close to 6,000 times. And as it picked up its velocity, of course there are news outlets who are really watching for what's taking root on social media. And they jump on that. And so International Business Times was one of several news outlets that wrote it up. People like Mail Online, Daily Mirror, a lot of the UK tabloids as well as some smaller websites. Her image and her legend starts to build. She becomes the face, in a lot of ways, of this resistance.
BOB: And as a matter of propaganda value, extremely important to the Kurds, who now have a face of the struggle. Which presents a media problem for ISIS.
SILVERMAN: That's right, so after the tweet goes viral, after the news articles and frankly after they see a claim that I'm sure they would find to be incredibly offensive that a female fighter had killed 100 of their militant colleagues, they decide to fight back. And so, all of a sudden, ISIS supporters on Twitter start talking about the fact that they have killed Rehana. In fact there's even a photo that starts circulating of a fighter with a big smile on his face, holding what appears to be the decapitated head of a woman. The head really doesn't look like Rehana, but that's enough that now suddenly we get the second blossoming of media articles of 'Oh no, have they killed Rehana.'
BOB: And as far as you can tell, neither the original narrative, nor the counter-narritive has any truth to it whatsoever.
SILVERMAN: What we know is that this woman really exists. She's definitely a volunteer fighter in the Kurdish forces. Which is a very admirable thing. Carl Drott met her. Took a photo of her, quoted her. We don't know who took the other photo. Her name is likely not Rehana. Carl Drott says that's not a common name for Kurdish women. Because she's in the Home Guard unit, the chances that she was fighting on the front are relatively slim and the chances that she or perhaps any individual Kurdish fighter could give a verifiable claim to killing 100 Islamic State fighters most likely, again, not true. And then the claims of having killed her don't really hold water, either.
BOB: Now you are Mr. Rumor. And you have isolated kind of three varieties. Where does the Rehana legend fit in?
SILVERMAN: One of the important rumor studies that was done in the 1940s looked at over 1,000 wartime rumors and found that they fit pretty nicely into one of three categories. One category being a wish rumor. Something that people hoped was true. Fear rumors driven by the worse case scenarios that people could imagine. And then the third category were wedge driving rumors, aimed at attacking specific people and segments of society. For me the story of Rehana is a perfect wish rumor out of a war zone. A perfect image. A lovely smile. And a really amazing claim that plays into the wishes that I think most of us in the West have in terms of what's going to happen to Islamic State. That they'll be not only taken down and killed, but in fact in a way that goes right against their misogynistic ideology.
BOB: If this mythology can so take root, should this give us reason to be suspicious of everything that's coming out of Iraq and Syria.
SILVERMAN: I think the short answer is 'yes.' There are very few news organizations that have a consistent and reliable reports coming from the ground there. We know now that the Islamic State is targeting journalists and trying to kill them and kidnap them. And in a lot of cases news organizations have to start relying on NGO's and other sources to put out information that they can then use in their reporting. And as much as third parties might have good intentions, we don't know how they got their information and we should be skeptical of all of these things. Absolutely.
BOB: Craig, thank you.
SILVERMAN: Thank you.
BOB: Craig Silverman wrote about the Rehana rumors as part of a new collaboration between his website Emergent and Digg.com - they'll be using social media data to track and dispel media rumors.