Sad lessons from Korat
When I heard about a 40-something gunman firing at least 40 shots in central Bangkok on Friday (no one was hurt and he was arrested), my first thought was that it had some link to the recent atrocity in Nakhon Ratchasima. The Valentine's Day incident came just days after a soldier killed 29 victims in the country's worst-ever mass shooting.
Before the Korat massacre, I couldn't imagine such savagery could take place in a peaceful country like Thailand. But things changed completely when a soldier opened fire on a Buddhist holy day in the busy northeastern province.
After an 18-hour rampage, the 32-year-old gunman was killed in the shopping complex where he had holed up, but only after security forces managed to rescue hundreds of terrified shoppers and workers. His death was the 30th, while 58 people were injured and many more have been traumatised for life.
In an image on his Facebook page, the killer was seen wearing a camouflaged military helmet while a fireball and black smoke raged behind him. His live posts drew more than 1,000 reactions each before the page was made inaccessible. But before Facebook took his profile down, his following had surged from 200 to 20,000.
Videos of bodies covered with blood in the parking lot and images of people fleeing in terror as gunshots rang out were everywhere on social media, and many appeared in mainstream media. Authorities had to ask media outlets to stop their highly detailed live reports -- some even showed floor plans of the mall -- as they were jeopardising the work of police and soldiers trying to get civilians out safely.
There is something alarming about the way that Thai social media reacted to this grisly horror. Thailand ranks among the world's top 10 countries for social media usage but social media literacy is among the lowest in the world, according to government data.
Mass shootings occur worldwide and are a particular problem in the United States. Despite being home to only 5% of the world's population, the US accounts for 31% of all mass shootings. Researchers now believe such events have a contagion effect, similar to a "copycat" effect. There is evidence that when a mass shooting occurs, there is a temporary increase in the probability of another event within the next 13 days on average.
Research has also demonstrated that media exposure of such events can influence imitation. Coverage often repeatedly presents the shooter's image, manifesto and life story, and by doing so can directly influence imitation. That's why there is a growing trend in some countries to not even name mass-shooting suspects, since publicity is often the thing they crave most.
The World Health Organization, backed by over 50 years of research on imitation, has posted media guidelines on reporting suicides to prevent imitation. In the United States, the FBI has endorsed the "Don't Name Them" movement. This was not the case in Thailand where the Korat killer's name and story became known very quickly.
But I think the most important element is to avoid in-depth descriptions of the shooter's rationale for engaging in the behaviour. In general, people are more likely to imitate people they view as similar to themselves.
For example, stating that a shooter was seeking revenge over a certain perceived injustice may portray a mass shooting as an option for someone experiencing a similar problem or with a similar background.
Understanding the motive for a mass shooting is undoubtedly important, but publicising in-depth descriptions might do more harm than good.
But what scares and saddens me more than the Korat shooting is the hatred that has accumulated in Thai society. As news of the Korat attack spread, people were taking to social media in the thousands to vent their anger at everyone from journalists (I'm not saying all of them were doing a good job) to the army chief and the prime minister.
Some people, having learned about the grievance that had enraged the soldier, even said they understood his rationale. But no one has a right to kill innocent people. It seems to me the gunman somehow succeeded in dividing Thai society.
When such a terrible thing happens, we should love and care for each other more, am I not right? Pay good attention, particularly to people you are close to, and make sure they know somebody is there for them, to listen and share their burden, so they won't become desperate about the difficulties they are facing. Happy belated Valentine's Day to all!
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor