Stomping STOMP is not the way to go

I don’t like the Straits Times Online Media Print.  STOMP calls itself “Asia’s leading citizen-journalism website with user-generated material fuelling its success”. But it is Singapore’s mainstream digital gutter tabloid — without editors, without common sense, without moderators, without quality control. STOMP is infamous for posts condemning foreigners, criticising national servicemen and police who relax in public, publicising street fights, and for failing to check fake news stories and making up fake stories. Citizen journalism may be a decentralised mode of journalism that gives voice to the average citizen — but it is still journalism and journalism demands standards, standards which STOMP consistently fails to meet. STOMP is emblematic of many media failings more so since STOMP’s parent company, the Singapore Press Holdings, is Singapore’s largest print news company — and has very strong ties to the government. Public opinion is turning against STOMP, with a petition calling for STOMP to be shut down. As of time of writing, the petition has over 21500 supporters.

For all its failings, I think STOMP should not be shut down.

Let me get the obvious out of the way: It is extremely unlikely that SPH would actually shut down STOMP. SPH has invested too much time, money, energy and reputation into developing and maintaining STOMP to do that. Singaporean institutions do not have a track record of giving in to public demands and it is very improbable SPH will set a precedent. STOMP has done nothing illegal (to be discussed below), STOMP draws huge numbers of hits every day with its sensationalism, and with those hits come paid advertisements and premium rates. In a world shifting away from print papers, SPH has to find a way to survive, and that means increasing revenues from online sources. I think SPH will continue to hold on to STOMP for as long as STOMP continues to rake in the dough, regardless of negative publicity and petitions.

But let’s assume that SPH might do more than chuck the petition into the bin or issue a perfunctory response. Let’s assume SPH will actually be moved by the petition. I still say closing down STOMP is not the way to go. The answer to offensive speech is more speech. It is true that STOMP has published many offensive articles and comments that can be construed as trolling, and perhaps encourages cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment. However, the Media Development Authority has stated that it would only take action if STOMP has violated the Internet Code of Practice, and as far as I can tell it has not. Nor has STOMP actually broken the law. There is therefore no room for prosecution, or even government action. If there is no proof that STOMP has done anything more than given voice to people who wish nothing more than to vent their spleens and spew nonsense, if there is no proof that STOMP has in fact harmed people, I believe there is no just cause for shutting it down.

What STOMP, its articles, its contributors and its commentators have done is offend many, many people. But hurt feelings are not a cause to shut people down. Feelings are subjective, and therefore cannot be measured. What offends someone may not offend another. This subjectivity means that there can be no benchmark for third-party enforcement. A more appropriate response to offensive speech would instead be more speech. If a reader doesn’t like an article that wantonly condemns all foreigners, she is free to criticise it. If another reader realises that STOMP has once again doctored photos to stir up controversy, he is equally free to point it out. Since I believe STOMP adds no value to my life, I choose to ignore it — and the rest of Singapore is equally free to do so.

While many people — myself included — think STOMP serves no purpose, the fact remains that STOMP is not merely about publishing gossip or trash. STOMP is more than just nonsense. People who follow the club scene might find useful information in articles about local nightclubs. STOMP aggregates some foreign news that might not make it to local newspaper — this morning, STOMP published an article about a man leaving a $1000 tip to a waitress so she could visit Italy.  Some youths may find STOMP’s Youthforia section interesting. Shutting down STOMP deprives people who find benefit from these sections. I study videos of street fights for research, and now and then videos of Singaporean fights pop up on STOMP. STOMP is not entirely useless.

STOMP has offended a great number of people, but it can also be redeemed. What does Singapore need more? A shrinking media environment, or a broader and more dynamic one? Reporters Without Borders placed Singapore 149th in the world for press freedom. While this is a reflection of government practices, how does shutting down STOMP make Singapore’s media more free? Chicago Times editor and publishing Wilbur F. Storey said, “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.” Pleasing the government or the people is not in there. This means publishing the news, the facts of the day, and established truths — regardless of the feelings of the people or special interest groups. If a mob can shut down STOMP with a petition, who is to say another mob may not one day decide to shut down other, more reputable, media outlets? Or that one day public opinion will turn against Singapore’s group blogs and another mob will try to shut them down too? A successful petition to shut down STOMP could set a precedent for the tyranny of the mob over the media, mainstream and alternate.

Further, STOMP benefits a specific demographic, one that is not served by other, more famous, sociopolitical news blogs. The clubbers, the youths, the pop culturists, the ones who follow local court cases. By shutting down STOMP, the mob is saying that the interests of these people do not matter. Their interests might be trivial, but they are still a market, so even if STOMP goes down someone else will set up a spiritual successor to STOMP to serve this market. And there is no guarantee that STOMP 2.0 will not simply resort to reaching out to the lowest common denominator the way STOMP does now. Which means it is likely Singapore will see the same problem again.

Singapore needs a more vibrant media environment, not a smaller one. I think the better approach is to get STOMP to reform itself. STOMP’s core problem is quality control. STOMP cares only about sensationalism. Its editors do not check facts. Contributors are free to publish anything, including venomous xenophobic rants, unfounded conjecture and outright lies. The solution, therefore, is greater quality. That means changing STOMP’s scope, moving away from sensationalism and towards a greater respect for facts. Overhauling the editorial team, so that they actually edit articles and take a more active role in moderating comments. Refusing to publish unfounded, unverifiable stories or comments, or content that does not serve the public good — and making up for times when QC fails and unsatisfactory content is produced. If there is to be a petition that I believe it ought to be a petition to transform STOMP.  Not shut it down. But a petition is not enough, of course. It means convincing SPH that STOMP will either be more profitable if overhauled, or less profitable if it carries on — or both. Boycotting STOMP and telling SPH that you will continue to do so until STOMP is no longer Singapore’s mainstream digital gutter tabloid. Writing in to STOMP to demand changes. Supporting or creating alternative sites and explaining why STOMP no longer cuts it. Directly competing with STOMP with a more ethical and fact-based operational model.

It is easy and satisfying to tear something down, even more tempting when the target seems to be justified. But the better — though harder — approach is to build it up and make it the best it can be. It is not enough to demand change; this change must benefit people, with the goal of building a better world. Stomping STOMP does not serve the long-term interest. Improving it does.

Stomping STOMP is not the way to go

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