By Kirsten Han
In a country as wired as Singapore, it’s easy to see why media outlets would want to capitalise on our addiction to sharing (and over-sharing) on social media. “User-generated content” is a God-send to any media organisation hoping to maximise content and eyeballs with minimal investment and in-house manpower.
Former Singapore Press Holdings journalist Bertha Henson blogged about her part in setting up the website, and how it was meant to engage younger Singaporeans who might have been put off by the “fuddy-duddy” Straits Times – SPH’s flagship publication and Singapore’s only English-language general news broadsheet.
It’s a good intention, but if the STOMP we’re seeing today is SPH’s idea of “engaging the youth” and livening up its brand, then it’s time to worry about how Singapore’s biggest publishing house sees the media and its role in the country.
STOMP’s idea of citizen journalism is a repository for voyeuristic, small-minded petty complaints. Its content – when not outright false – often appeals to xenophobia, sexism and mob mentality. Even its “Don’t Be A Facebook Idiot” campaign, launched with supposedly (but highly dubious) good intentions, encourages people to indulge in some good ol’ flaming.
Why does STOMP exist, then?
In a context where government ministers are eager to label citizen journalists and online news websites as irresponsible or “wild”, STOMP – and the apparent impunity with which is operates – sticks out like a sore thumb. In an email I wrote to Mimi Kirk at The Atlantic for her article, I described STOMP as the “giant smelly elephant in the room” whenever the government talks about the need to regulate non-mainstream media websites. (Unfortunately that vivid image didn’t make it into the article in the end.)
The government has always been keen to look for ways to regulate or control alternative news websites. It’s not difficult to see why: these alternative websites challenge the establishment narrative, and present different visions of Singapore’s political future for the electorate to ponder. Sometimes these websites also highlight troubling social issues that show up the otherwise carefully cultivated image of Singapore’s success story. It’s not a great stretch to say that these alternative voices had an impact on the 2011 General Election that saw the ruling People’s Action Party gather the lowest share of the vote it’s ever had since it first came to power in 1959.
Yet for all the talk about “reading the right thing”, the government has said remarkably little about STOMP, a mainstream media website far more problematic and irresponsible than a number of alternative news websites that have been hit with regulation or gazette notices.
STOMP is already licensed and should therefore already be regulated, but when The Online Citizen – a socio-political blog gazetted as a “political association” in 2011 – asked the Media Development Authority about STOMP’s content, this was all they had to say: “STOMP, like other class licensed and individually licensed sites, is required to comply with the Internet Code of Practice (“Code”). If you have come across instances where STOMP is in breach of the Code, you are advised to bring these to our attention and MDA will investigate accordingly.”
It’s a cop-out.
If the over 21,000 people who signed the petition know what’s wrong with STOMP, it is laughable to think that the country’s media regulators know nothing about it.
It’s unclear why the MDA has decided to leave STOMP alone while it pursues other websites with zeal. The short-lived alternative website Breakfast Network was even told that it would have to shut down its Facebook and Twitter pages after it chose to take down its website rather than register with the MDA.
MDA’s inaction in the face of STOMP’s lies and vitriol shows up the regulation system. At best, it is ineffective. At worst, it is downright hypocritical, justifying criticism of double standards and political motives.
It is unlikely that SPH will close down STOMP. It is, at the end of the day, the major winner in this game, raking in the dough through a website that preys on our basest instincts. Yet over 20,000 Singaporeans have sent a strong message. What happens next, on both the parts of SPH and the MDA, will show us the establishment’s response to a demand for a better media landscape in Singapore.
This article first appeared in mUmBRELLA.
Kirsten Han is author of the blog #Spuddings. She has written for Asian Correspondent, The Online Citizen, Huffington Post and Yahoo! Singapore, and is the co-founder of a campaign against capital punishment in Singapore.