For the uninitiated, RUMINT stands for “Rumor-based Intelligence.”  It is the grapevine, the Lance Corporal Underground, the mysterious pathways by which information gets around before higher’s even aware that it’s out there.

With social media and so-called “New Media,” RUMINT has gotten more pervasive than ever.  Now you can find up-to-the-minute reports of what is going on in Iraq and Syria just by following the right Twitter account or SubReddit.  People on the ground in conflict zone around the world are now talking about what is going on at the time for all the world to see.

But this isn’t always reliable.  The person Tweeting or talking on Reddit isn’t always right there.  They may have a cousin or a friend in the area of whatever events are going down.  Or they heard it from somebody who has a cousin or friend there.  Either way, RUMINT often turns into a game of “Telephone,” where by the time it gets to the end-user, it’s distorted far beyond what’s actually happening.

For example, on August 11, as Maliki deployed security forces throughout Baghdad and condemned the President of Iraq for naming a new prime minister, this report surfaced, repeated in a couple of places, reporting that not only was a coup underway (which never materialized), but that ISIS was taking advantage of it to attack Baghdad from the south, a direction that no one expected ISIS to attack from, since their activities had been entirely focused on the north.  The report only came from that one source, but the news that ISIS was beginning its assault on Baghdad was getting repeated on several social media outlets.  While ISIS has, in fact, been launching attacks in Baghdad for several months, mainly VBIEDs, there was no concerted assault happening.

A lot of “on-the-spot” reports from “people who are there” often boil down to single-source reporting.  (Actual trained collectors, such as Recon teams, are different, but you won’t be seeing those reports on social media or the news; if you do, somebody should be facing charges.)  Anyone in the intel field on here could tell you that single-source reporting shouldn’t ever be taken at face value.  (The fact that it sometimes is, often for political purposes, doesn’t change the fact that it should be considered unreliable until corroborated by at least one other source.)  The point of all of this is, don’t accept a rumor just because you heard it from somebody who “is there.”  They might not be as close to the action as you think they are, they might be mistaken, they might have been told something by a participant who exaggerated or downplayed for their own purposes.  Treat every report as suspect, and look for corroborating reporting.  Three or more sources (that can be trusted to be impartial; openly idealism-driven confirmation-bias sources cannot be) reporting on the same incident, and you can start to get a feel for what actually happened.  Any rumor that sounds like it’s a real scoop, but nobody else is talking about, and you’ve probably got bullshit.

Image courtesy AP