You saw it on Facebook and Twitter first. The videos of bloody bodies lying in the parking lot. The images of people fleeing in terror, of the mall’s food court ablaze, and gunshots, the piercing sound of gunshots, everywhere.
The posts didn’t end on social media, it started appearing in the mainstream media as well.
Screenshots of the shooter taking a selfie in full tactical gear, with the blazing mall in the background. His shocking, blasé Facebook posts, each with over 1K reacts highlighted by anchors and reporters.
Before Facebook took his profile down, his following had grown from 200 to 20,000. By that time, 12 were confirmed dead – the number would eventually rise to over 20 and many more wounded.
The digital age
Within minutes of the massacre, multiple live-streams were broadcast – from official news channels to unofficial live-streams from within and outside of the mall. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to watch. News broke – across Twitter, of course – that the shooter was using a hostage’s phone to watch the live-streams and track the movements of the authorities and other bystanders in the mall.
The revolution will not be televised, but the massacre will be live-streamed.
By 7:50 pm, the army asked media outlets to stop live-streaming the situation. Within an hour, the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission asked all TV channels, shoppers, and workers to stop their broadcasting inside the mall.
However, live feeds of Thai special forces preparing to storm the mall were still being shared as late as 9 pm.
By Sunday morning, the hashtag #แบนช่องone (#banchannelone) was trending, a criticism of the channel’s alleged sensationalism and live broadcasting of security forces while they were preparing to rescue hostages and confront the gunman.
It is a ghastly echo of the Munich massacre of 1972, where live broadcasts gave the terrorists critical information about where snipers were positioned around the Israeli quarters, frustrating rescue operations. The massacre ended tragically with the deaths of all 11 athletes.
Failure of all
There is something alarming about the way that Thai social media has reacted to this massacre. Often times when we speak of the failure of social media, we speak of algorithms. It is no secret that posts with highly emotive content can better capture your attention and propagate faster – these are the posts that get prioritised on your Facebook or Twitter feed. Facebook, recognising the way the algorithm can work too well, has restricted violent video clips and photos.
But today, we are also seeing a failure of humanity. Content appears on the newsfeed – there is still a remarkable amount of agency that goes into clicking the “share” button. But videos of the victims’ dead bodies, screenshots of the shooter’s cavalier statements, live streams of the situation inside Terminal 21 and the authorities stationed outside the mall have been shared by media outlets and concerned citizens alike.
As Thailand watches events unfold in fear, it is a race to see who can know more and who is closer to the news source. Social media has provided the tools: some come equipped with screenshots from Facebook posts made by the shooter’s classmates, remarking on his ‘quiet’ qualities, others with screenshots of prior text messages shared with the shooter. This is the emotive content that moves us and has transformed the massacre into a macabre content carnival.
When the 2019 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand was live-streamed, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to say the shooter’s name. Instead, she asked the crowd at the memorial service, “What words adequately express the pain and suffering of 50 men, women and children lost, and so many injured?”
As the Thai public and internet reel in shock at the horror of the massacre, we are left with the question: how will we adequately express the pain and suffering of over 20 people lost, and many more injured? We are still waiting for their names, but soon, soon we will come to know that they were teachers, construction workers, security guards, businessmen, schoolchildren and that they had lives and families and people who love them deeply.
The images of their bodies lying on the Korat tarmac are not for us to share. The dead deserve better, their families deserve better, we as a society can do better, likes and follows are not worth real pain and anguish.