How social media 'sleuths' are killing the Bangkok bombings probe

This had led to undue harassment of a fashion blogger, who was erroneously compared to the suspect.

 |  4-minute read |   27-08-2015
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Following the worst ever bombing incident in Thailand which killed 20 people on August 17, 2015, there has been a host of unusual events ranging from advice to watch a crime-detective series on TV to the emergence of social media detectives and cyber vigilantes.

First of all, let's talk about the arrests that followed the attack. While the main accused has not been arrested, a journalist, Anthony Kwan Hok-chun, who works for the Hong Kong-based Initium media group found himself on the wrong side of the law. He was arrested on charges of carrying a “bulletproof vest” and “helmet” while departing from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhoomi airport. Both bulletproof vests and helmets are classified as military equipment under the Thai law. Anthony brought them to Thailand for self-protection and was leaving the country after completing his assignment. Journalists have often worn body armours in conflict zones, particularly after two journalists died in gunfire during the Thai political unrest in 2010. Anthony was later released on bail after being charged for breaching Thailand's Arms Control Act, under which he could face five years in prison.

Also read: Why Bangkok blast may not be a terrorist attack

"Watch Blue Bloods", was the suggestion of the Thailand prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who asked his police to watch the US crime drama since this could help them crack the case. "Police investigators, especially the national police chiefs should watch this series. They will get tips, ideas and insights for their case," said Chan-ocha, who is also the former commander-in-chief of the Thai Army. The police have been complaining that the technology for face recognition is missing and they are unable to decipher the footage. The US, and many other countries have offered help, and though the prime minister has asked his deputy to cooperate on the question of equipments that include face-recognition technology, he has ruled out working with US investigators. Meanwhile, they have been advised to watch Blue Bloods.

Thirdly, though Bangkok has close to 57,000 CCTV cameras — out of which 10,000 are capable of taking high-resolution images - the investigation has been hindered by the lack of adequate footage. National police chief Somyot Poompunmuang told the media that 15 out of the 20 cameras at the Ratchaprasong intersection to Silom, were “out of order”. That leaves with only five working cameras, implying a 75 per cent failure rate. The police have a scattered view of the path taken by the suspected bomber, and the footage jumps from one scene to another. The police chief added that they had to rely on “imagination” to fill in the gaps in reconstructing the case.

Also read: Bangkok bombings: An internal conspiracy or external terror?

Social media 'detectives' and cyber vigilantes joined the authorities in doing their bit of Blue Bloods investigation. A hashtag #bombercluephoto emerged and people started posting pictures of people who looked like the suspects. This led to undue harassment of a fashion blogger, who was erroneously compared to the suspect, leading to considerable angst being directed against him. The blogger then took a selfie and posted it online saying: “Posting a selfie is the best way to protect myself.” In another case, one graphic artist created numerous variations of the sketch that the police has released, using his graphic design skills to change the colour of the hair and the hairstyle and created umpteen combinations including a tonsured look, a mohawk, and an Afro look to help people identify the suspect in case he attempts a disguise.

A leading media house dressed one of its employees to look like a “suspect” and attempted to re-enact the incident at the Erawan shrine. They met with hostility from locals while filming at the scene, with the attempted re-enactment causing considerable outrage. The police asked them to leave the spot, and the TV channel apologised with a statement that the plan was made "without consideration for the sensitivity of the public and with disrespect for the dead”.

Finally, the Thai response to the bombings was sombre, and there was virtually no backlash against people of any community, race or ethnicity. The Thai reaction was that of pain and anguish, and the scene of the bombing was host to a multifaith prayer a few days later. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians joined their Buddhist counterparts to hold a ceremony at the Erawan shrine to pray in this highly devout country.

Writer

Bajinder Pal Singh Bajinder Pal Singh

He is a journalist based in Thailand, who specialises in south and southeast Asia. His interests include science, environment and education, and their interface with media.

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