Two online petitions in circulation: one against citizen journalism site STOMP and the other against socio-commentary site The Real Singapore (TRS). The first claims that STOMP has fabricated stories, promoted cyber-bullying, and invaded the privacy of fellow citizens, whereas the second asserts that TRS has posted articles inciting fear, hatred, and xenophobia, many of which have been plagiarised. Both are perceived as scourges of the Internet.
Nothing is going to come out of these petitions, besides the publicity which both websites will be grateful for. For every detractor both STOMP and TRS justify their publications with large supporter bases. The Singapore Press Holdings has responded that STOMP will continue. Pragmatically the 25,000 signatures on the petition count for very little, given that the website drew 120 million page views and had 1.68 million unique visitors. And even if these websites are eventually forced by the government to close down their users will just swarm to alternatives, or continue to post drivel through personal social media platforms. Petitions calling for the closure of those sites will then emerge again.
Besides, it will be difficult for the government to justify further regulatory action against websites. What norms should it operate on? How does it determine if there have been breaches of public interest? Already the practicality of the ban on 100 websites has been questioned, and the individual licensing scheme introduced by the Media Development Agency in June last year was criticised for the lack of specificity over the criteria used. The conservatism of a majority of the population was used to justify the ban on Ashley Madison
Petitioning for the closure of websites is not the answer.
Bad content hurts a website. Bad content is hate speech, misinformation and disinformation, as well as corrosive discourse. High web traffic and the allure of sensationalism drive content providers to lower editorial standards and publish the most ludicrous pieces at no cost – at least, for the time being. In the long term growing scepticism of the veracity and quality of content will drive readers away from the websites. The aforementioned petitions may not be effective responses, but they are evidence of disgruntlement towards these content platforms.
Forcing a website to close down is easy for the government. Yet this present anxiety to shut down websites could also blind us to deeper dissatisfaction with national policies. Someone ranting against immigration policies could have lost a job. Someone criticising the education system could have struggled through school. Someone rambling about income inequality could be finding it hard to make ends meet. These cannot be discounted. I am not endorsing their actions, even though echo chambers like TRS do possess some value in this regard.
An odd proposition it may appear to be, but I support STOMP’s and TRS’s rights to exist. This is premised upon the faith that Singaporeans will grow to be more discerning readers.
Perhaps the most convincing justification for the closure of such websites is the direct harm caused to individuals. Witch hunts have troubled innocents, and social media faux pas are usually followed by incessant harassment, and after corrections have been made the damage is often already done. In such instances the importance of prevention and deterrence cannot be disregarded. The illegal reproduction of posts ranks close to these considerations too.
It would however be naïve to think that these unfortunate incidents are the result of the Internet, even if the medium does perpetuate them. In real life we might be less likely to make disparaging remarks or spout nasty things, but sometimes we remain quick to cast aspersions or castigate others for their shortcomings. I am guilty too, for my cynicism clouds my perceptions and interactions with others. The proposals for education and media literacy programmes may be clichéd, yet they are reasonably the most sustainable solutions. Learning about the consumption of content and ascertaining facts are crucial, although learning how to unplug or disengage from (potential) conflicts is equally significant.
Above all we should educate our kids and ourselves to be respectful, to be kind to one another. To treat others the way you would like to be treated – online and offline.