MORE than a week has passed since the Erawan Shrine bombing, and officials have yet to bring the culprit to justice despite releasing a composite sketch of the main suspect and asking Interpol for assistance. Just hours after the bombing, though, many on Thai social media appeared to think they had the case solved. People had already pinpointed the motives for the attack, backed up with theories on who carried it out. Soon after the police released a footage of the suspect a day later, many Thais took to Facebook and Twitter to identify him as anti-coup student activist Rangsiman Rome, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and even Japanese cartoon character Nobita Nobi, among others.
The problem is that most of these theories were based on unfounded speculation, random lookalikes, and photoshopped jokes. Faced with such an unprecedented tragedy, Thai social media turned into a den of rumors, insensitive memes and graphic images of the victims. As a society, we should have done better.
Circulating with the first wave of information on social media after the explosion were graphic images of the victims, which soon caused a stir online. And although the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) started an online campaign against the sharing of such photos, currently signed by almost 10,00 people, the images were already out there. Although circulating such images can land a person in prison for up to three months, it did little to stop the lack of online etiquette and consideration. The practice even pre-dates social media, with many Thai news media using pixelated images of dead victims, almost as a norm, to visualize the degree of a crime.
ต่างชาติ ใส่แว่น สะพายเป้ เสื้อเหลือง pic.twitter.com/GY7wrVpsNE
— UNLIMITEDHEART (@Unlimitedheart) August 18, 2015
Insensitivity also went beyond the images of the dead, thanks to a number social media users who were perhaps too eager to apply a sense of humor to the tragedy. Circulated on Facebook was a parody of Nobita, a Japanese cartoon character from Doraemon, wearing a yellow T-shirt, glasses and a backpack like the suspect. In the distastefully edited dialog balloons, Nobita talks to Doraemon about the suspect’s similar appearance. Others, worried the suspect might have altered his look, thought it would be helpful to photoshop the suspect’s sketch with different haircuts and disguises, to an unhelpful, absurd extent. Given the ongoing political conflict has been the country’s biggest talking point in the past decade, the attack was inevitably linked to politics. The anti-Thaksin crowd started to point the finger at the former prime minister, with their counterparts on the opposite side hitting back, resulting in different versions of satirical meme of Thaksin saying “feel free to blame it on me.” Before the investigation even started, the shrine attack became an excuse for the two political tribes to attack each other online. (READ MORE: Contradictions mount as Thai authorities hunt Bangkok bombing suspect) Thai officials’ unclear communication, which has been self-contradicting, ambiguous and inadequate, didn’t help the situation. AFP’s misquoting of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as saying the suspect was possibly associated with “an anti-government group based in Thailand’s northeast” only sparked more groundless political debate. In the moment of uncertainty, people were looking at trusted sources, but they barely found anything. The police, too, despite asking the public to report any lead via websites, social media and its messaging app – ‘Police i lert u’ – don’t know how to communicate online. Its Facebook pages and Twitter handles have been showing photos of high-rank officers attending meetings after the bombing, when the public clearly wants to know the suspect’s whereabouts – not theirs.
Others, though, did put social media to better use, spreading the word of the need for blood donation and Chinese translators. CSI LA, a popular Thai Facebook community, which led the cyber-investigation of the suspicious Koh Tao murders last year, this time also arranged the police’s released screenshots of the bombing suspect in a chronological order that is easier to understand.
An incident of such impact always triggers the human need to find out what happened and why; we have tried hard to make sense of this terrible attack. To satisfy such a demand for information we throw in assumptions, partially reasoned or wholly imaginative, careless that when passed on and perceived as facts, they do more to confuse than clarify.
An assistant professor at Dartmouth College, Brendan Nyhan, who examined the media coverage after the Boston Marathon bombing on Columbia Journalism Review, said it was the rush to report as well as “weak reputational and commercial penalties for inaccuracy” that led to many mistaken initial reports by prominent news outlets. In a New York Times article, Nyhan also observes how false articles perform better than articles do much better than articles that correct the mostake: A viral, false story of a woman who claimed to have had a third-breast implant got over 188,000 shares while articles reporting it was false got less than one-third of the former’s social buzz.
Rumors, often based on speculation and circulated to satisfy curiosity, often attract more interest and clicks. But as interesting or fitting as they are, it’s not what we need at uncertainty. On the Internet and social media we are no longer just the audience, but interactive users who can produce and disseminate information online in seconds. The prevalent use of social media in Thailand can only emphasize how crucial we come to terms with the responsibility that comes with the fast and powerful communication tools at our fingertips. As we hunt for truth and justice, let’s not base our discussion on fear, feud and fiction.