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Terrorism

Thailand to curb social media after shooter streamed on Facebook

Government plans spur concerns about infringement on free speech

Police at a Bangkok military airport on Feb. 10 carry coffins containing the bodies of SWAT members killed in the mass shooting at the Terminal 21 shopping mall. Thirty people died in the Feb. 8-9 incident, including the shooter.   © Reuters

BANGKOK/SYDNEY -- The gunman in Thailand's mass shooting on Saturday posted messages and video on Facebook as the terror unfolded, prompting the government to discuss measures to restrict the use of social media in such emergencies.

The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will convene a meeting as early as this week to discuss steps including freezing suspects' accounts and limiting media reports. 

But the possibility of social media restrictions is raising concerns that it could infringe on freedom of speech, given that the Prayuth government is already keen on controlling information. 

Thirty died Saturday from a soldier's hourslong rampage in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, Thai state media report, surpassing the death toll from the 2015 bombing in central Bangkok. Fifty-eight were injured.

The incident was "unprecedented in Thailand," Prayuth said, stressing that "it should never happen again."

The shooter first killed his superior officer before opening fire in public and barricading himself in a shopping mall. He was facing financial problems from a property deal, according to media reports.

The perpetrator posted on Facebook during the attack, including a video where he said he was "tired" and could no longer move his finger. Unverified rumors online caused chaos amid a lack of information from official channels.

The government had Facebook delete the man's account. It also urged those trapped in the mall and media outlets to refrain from posting on social media to avoid interfering with rescue efforts.

People should refrain from sharing social media posts with unverified information, said Buddhipongse Punnakanta, minister of digital economy and society. A separate man was arrested after falsely threatening another attack, according to a Monday announcement.

The military-backed Prayuth is sensitive to criticism of continued military influence over government after the junta that seized power in 2014 handed control to a civilian government in 2019. To control information online, the government set up a fake-news response center under its Digital Economy and Society Ministry last year and has arrested a critic of the previous military junta. Internet cafes also must submit internet histories of customers.

Given that Saturday's shootings were committed by a soldier, it could strengthen pushback against the military. This, in turn, could lead to further curbs on reporting.

The role of social media was hotly debated after other attacks as well. The perpetrator of the Christchurch shooting in March 2019 livestreamed the attack on Facebook. The video was played roughly 4,000 times before it was removed and has also been shared beyond Facebook. The New Zealand government banned the video three days after the attack.

In April, Australia passed legislation requiring social media operators to swiftly take down videos of terrorist attacks and other "abhorrent violent material."

Countries are also on edge over terrorist organizations using social media to promote their ideologies and recruit members. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron in May 2019 brought together government and technology leaders to adopt the Christchurch Call, a commitment to eliminate terrorist content online. Roughly 50 countries and organizations have signed on so far.

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