Irate Singaporeans Want to Stomp STOMP

Maybe citizen journalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Ask Singapore Press Holdings, publisher of the Straits Times, which in 2006 founded the Straits Times Online Mobile Print, or STOMP, to give ordinary citizens the chance to have a voice in the island republic’s daily affairs.

Now they want a voice in shutting down the website. More than 23,000 angry Singaporeans have signed an online petition demanding that the website be taken down because of inaccurate, biased, often malicious reporting, seemingly aimed at inflaming sentiment.

The island’s mainstream media is notoriously hobbled by a government determined to make sure the only negative reporting on the country is what the government wants negatively reported, such as campaigns for cleaner toilets or against public rudeness.

As with citizen journalism in other parts of the world, STOMP was designed to serve the theory that democracy is better served without news being filtered by autocratic mainstream editors, and that common citizens, given a platform, will deliver unvarnished truth.

There have been plenty of incidents reported by STOMP that got authorities’ attention. In 2011, the website published a hilarious picture of a Singapore army soldier on his way to maneuvers with his Filipina domestic helper toting his army pack while he walked ahead, appearing to text on his phone. The entry kicked off a huge fuss and an army investigation.

Certainly, in many cities across the planet, citizen journalists have formed the first line of news reporting simply because they happen onto the scene of something newsworthy, iPhone cameras at the ready. The question appears to be whether Singapore Press Holdings designed the website without the necessary checks to guard against irresponsible reporting. It appears to have suffered from a scarcity of responsible fact-checking and editing.

“Stomp…is anything but free and open, nor does it seem intent on being so,” wrote Howard Lee, commentaries editor of another Singapore website, The Online Citizen. “It thrives on crass, and almost its entire focus is bent towards that purpose. It relies on the animal instincts of the mob to drive up ratings, and feed such emotions shamelessly without fear of reprisal. We have also seen that Stomp, or at least its staff, has no qualms about taking liberties with anonymity.”

The website, Lee wrote, “is not interested in good journalism. It’s not even interested in online freedom. It is latching on to sensationalism for the key purpose of eyeballs and money. We are not even sure if there is any editorial discretion applied to the posts it made, because it has proved, more often than not, that it doesn’t really care.”

Some STOMPers, as the participants are known, seem to play the role of social vigilantes, with most of their posts and pictures seemingly designed to provoke anger and controversy. Unverified reports suggest that contributors are given an S$50 (US$40) voucher for every published contribution.

Others are relatively dreary, as if completely unfiltered – “inconsiderate condo occupant caught throwing refuse off balcony;” “bus captain helps commuters stay dry;” “mother teaches child to say word ‘happy.’”

A significant number of posts involve National Servicemen (all Singaporean males are conscripted for two years). In 2013, one STOMPer posted about a sergeant urinating on his officer’s bed just before the former’s release from the service. The article was shortlisted as contribution of the month. The servicemen involved were court martialed, placed in detention barracks and demoted.

Some posts are less reliable, and perhaps even malicious. For instance, another post lambasted a Singaporean National Serviceman for not giving up his seat to an elderly woman. The uploaded photo was cropped, however, to remove a reserved seat that the woman chose not to sit in. In 2012, a staffer at STOMP was found to have lied about a photograph taken on a Singapore train, claiming that a door was open while the train was moving. The lie was spotted and the staffer was sacked.

While SPH’s main broadsheet, the Straits Times, decried anti-foreigner sentiments on the island, STOMP has published considerable xenophobic content. The publication was central in the public shaming of Anton Casey – a wealthy British expatriate who was flamed on the net and terminated from his job for calling public transport users poor and smelly on Facebook.

Shortly after the Anton Affair, STOMP launched a “Don’t be a Facebook Idiot” Campaign, encouraging people to submit articles about “Facebook Idiots” so that others would learn to be responsible users of the Internet.

“STOMP is attempting to normalize and legitimize what are essentially acts of Internet vigilantism,” said Prof Tan Cheng Han, president of the Media Literacy Council. Cherian George, a media expert and member of the Media Literary Council said, “just because it is a platform for user-generated content does not diminish its responsibility as a curator and taste-maker. Unfortunately, from its very start, STOMP has pandered to people’s desire to see or read about others behaving badly.”

The local media regulator, the Media Development Authority, has responded to the petition in a Facebook post, saying “while it is not for MDA to influence the editorial slant of sites, we would [take]… firm action if any Internet content provider is in breach of the Internet Code of Practice. These typically cover content that is against public interest and/or content that promotes racial and religious hatred or intolerance.”

Many responded negatively to the statement. Hosung Ryang wrote, “Are you guys so ignorant on your high horse? STOMP is the major one that is causing so much misleading sensationalist ‘news’, despite repeated outcry by the citizens that it is doing way more harm than good [if any]… We are not asking for ‘stricter regulation’ of the Internet… we are asking for the removal of this cancerous tumor that is spreading nothing but vile intents in our society. Is it too much to ask for?”

Cory Tan questioned the credibility of SPH: “If STOMP… continues to publish such untruths, then are the newspapers and news sites [managed] by SPH also prone to such acts of manipulation of public opinion?”

Prominent voices on the Internet are split on the issue. While some have argued for the petition to be signed, others like Andy Wong have argued that signing the petition to close the website would be an attack on freedom of expression.

“Stomp may be the wrong thing to read, but those who support freedom of expression should take a step back and look at the bigger picture,” wrote Wong.

With reporting from Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement