A journalist named Carol Malouf released several photos on Twitter this week from a meeting with Nalin Afrin (left) and “these appeared to be legitimate”.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - Photographs of women Peshmerga said to be fighting Islamic State have been mixed up and mis-labelled on social media by Kurds keen to promote their cause but unable to verify their information.
With large swathes of the battlefield in both Syria and Iraq off-limits to journalists because of the danger of execution by ISIS, activists have taken to social media to disseminate the rare photographs and news that emerges. But they often get it wrong in the fog of war.
Last week, photographs trending on social media claimed to depict Nalin Afrin, female commander of Kurdish forces in Kobane, the Syrian-Kurdish town on the Turkish border subjected to a siege by ISIS in past weeks.
But the photographs were actually of a woman spotter for the YPG, the Syrian-Kurdish militia, in the Iraqi town of Rabia near the Syrian border.
They were taken by Matt Cetti-Roberts last month for War is Boring, a widely-read and influential US blog. He was unable to get her name because she was scanning for enemy sharpshooters when he took the photographs.
There was little chance the photos were of Afrin, wrote Kevin Knodell, who edited the photographs for the blog.
It would have been practically impossible for a female sniper fighting in Iraq in September to have been promoted to general, and then make it all the way to Kobane in Syria, to take charge of a battle that was already raging in early October, he said.
“People have very sudden, very emotional responses to things they see on the internet, and they share them with friends and families,” Knodell told Rudaw.
“But sometimes they do that without checking on facts, or seeing if there's any truth to what they are seeing or reading. Social media is a great thing, but it has its downsides too,” he said.
In the case of Cetti-Roberts’ photo, Knodell said people wanted it to be Nalin Afrin. “This woman became a hero overnight but nobody knew what she looked like. She didn't have a face. So people gave her one, even if it wasn't actually her.”
A journalist named Carol Malouf released several photos on Twitter this week from a meeting with Nalin Afrin and these appeared to be legitimate, he said.
“Several of our colleagues’ photos have been used out of context on social media,” he said. “For instance, lots of photos of refugees from Sinjar [Shingal in Iraq] have been shown on social media with captions saying it depicts Kobane.”
Cetti-Roberts told Rudaw that his photo also depicted a YPG photographer called Mazloum who was killed by militants just hours after it was taken.
“The story behind this is that I sent the photo to my translator who was very friendly with him,” Cetti-Roberts said. “He put it on his Facebook page and somebody lifted it from there.”
It remains very difficult to get information about casualties and life under ISIS in Iraq.
For Syria, one source is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is run from the UK with the help of more than 200 activists inside Syria. Although it has been accused of bias by all sides in the Syrian civil war, its death toll of casualties is considered to be one of the most reliable by international human rights groups.
Mistakes and controversy are nothing new in media coverage of the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
An image of a child purportedly lying between his parents' graves in Syria and disseminated on social media was actually a staged photo taken as part of an art project, The Independent has reported.
The graves were actually piles of stones, the supposed orphan was the photographer's nephew, and the image itself was taken in Saudi Arabia, the British newspaper said.
Two years ago, the BBC accidentally used a picture taken in Iraq in 2003 to illustrate the massacre of children in Syria. John Kerry, US secretary of state, later used the same wrong picture during a speech about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Such mistakes have enabled all sides in the conflict – the Damascus regime of President Bashar Al-Assad included – to challenge any material put out by their opponents, whether it is true or false.