Who among us remembers the Dog Poop Girl? The Korean university student became part of the permanent digital record in 2005 when she allowed her dog to deposit a steaming pile on the floor of a Seoul subway car and, over the protests of fellow passengers, refused to clean up after it. One rider snapped some cell phone photos of the young woman and her dog and posted them to a popular South Korean website. Outraged netizens quickly identified the girl and revenge-posted her personal info, heaping public scorn upon her. The resulting humiliation eventually led to the girl withdrawing from university.
Pundits at the time wrung their hands over “Internet vigilantism” of this sort, a phenomenon then only a few months away from exploding into the notorious Human Flesh Search Engine in China. At The Washington Post, reporter Jonathan Krim observed that the incident provided “a peek into an unsettling corner of the future.”
But not everyone saw the glass as half-empty. Some hailed the dawn of a new era of transparency and personal accountability — a coming age when “citizen journalism” would race past such trifling speedbumps and out of its adolescence. They saw in these tea leaves a shining new force for transparency and public accountability — a vaunted “fifth estate” that would rise from the ashes of a dying news industry.
Nine years after the Dog Poop Girl went off the grid, people are still invoking the ideal of citizen journalism, though with very few exceptions — Global Voices Online, Ushahidi, AllVoices, and OhMyNews among them — it remains an unrealized ideal. All too often what’s really meant by “citizen journalism” is not journalism at all but merely user-generated content; there’s little doubt that much of what passes for news on the Internet these days is coughed up by people who never studied journalism, to say nothing of English grammar. As with much of the the rest of the techno-utopian dream, the vision we’ve ended up with is not quite what was foretold by the sages.
Nowhere is this story thrown into starker relief than in Singapore, where for the past several weeks two seemingly unrelated stories provide a revealing look at what has become of the promise of citizen journalism in one corner of Asia.
The first is that of online portal STOMP — an acronym for Straits Times Online Mobile Print — which its owner, media giant Singapore Press Holdings, describes as “Asia’s leading citizen-journalism website.” As it happens, however, the reports filed by STOMP’s many contributors practice consist almost exclusively of photographs taken by indignant Singaporeans of other citizens behaving badly.
Bear in mind that in buttoned-down Singapore (a place William Gibson famously dubbed “Disneyland with the death penalty”), behaving badly doesn’t have the same oomph as it does in, say, East L.A. or Nigeria or, for that matter, Paris. Recent crowdsourced stories featured on STOMP include reports of illegally parked cars, passed-out migrant workers, poor service at a Korean BBQ restaurant, and women whose gym clothes are too revealing. A typical news story nominated for STOMP’s monthly “Citizen Journalism Award” in May was a photograph of a suburban tree covered in black plastic. Another contender curdled beneath the headline: “What one Redhill resident discovered in his aircon compressor will shock you.”
What’s more, several of STOMP’s most popular recent scoops have turned out to be faux faux pas. There was the heartless army conscript who was photographed sitting on the MRT while an elderly woman stood, seatless, in front of him — an image later revealed to have been fabricated by a reader; an empty seat next to the serviceman had been digitally removed from the published photo. Another image of an MRT train moving with one set of its doors open was also later found to be doctored.
It doesn’t take an Edward Murrow to grasp that this kind of content has as much to do with real news as a mud pie has to do with red velvet cake. Singapore citizens may live in a single-party, quasi-police state, but they know rubbish when they see it, and the content on STOMP has become the subject of a national debate in recent weeks (to the extent that national debates are even allowed in Singapore — but more on that in a moment).
Many citizens are angry that the bulk of STOMP’s reader-driven shame campaign appears to focus — by accident or design — on the bad behavior of foreigners and visitors. Xenophobia, they say, will not do Singapore’s reputation any favors amongst the international community, on whom it depends for trade and tourism.
But many more are unhappy with the owners and editors of STOMP, who they claim are engaging in a brand of bad behavior all their own by wallowing in lowbrow media sensationalism and profiting from the invasion of citizens’ privacy and peace of mind, all at the expense of real news. In March, concerned citizens began an online petition at Change.org to “close down STOMP,” which to date has gathered 20,000 signatures. Despite the unbreakable monopoly on power the ruling People’s Action Party has legislated for itself and its disdain for independent media, Singapore citizens have begun to question the social value of a news organization whose noblest commitment to truth seems to be to the curiosity gap headline and photos of MRT riders in skimpy outfits.
Now let’s consider the second story, one that rests on a tale of actual, authentic citizen journalism.
In early May, a well-known Singapore blogger named Roy Ngerng began writing about controversial changes by the government to the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the nation-state’s mandatory social security savings plan. The changes raised the minimum sum required to withdraw from a citizen’s CPF account, meaning that citizens may now have to delay their retirement age to meet the minimum balance. Ngerng asked important, legitimate questions about the management of the CPF and put forward compelling evidence that — at the very least — the whole system smells funny and is crippled by a troubling absence of transparency and accountability. It’s clear that Ngerng, as a private citizen, was investigating a matter of real relevance to Singapore citizens, one that warrants further public investigation and discussion.
But an open discussion is precisely what Singapore has decided not allow.Last week Ngerng was sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a blunt attempt to shut down any discussion of the CFP and its administration. Ngerng was accused of defaming PM Lee, ordered to remove all the offending blog posts and to apologize. State attorneys also hit him with a lawsuit claiming “aggravated damages” for the offending posts. Compelled by the court to appoint a lawyer for his defense, Ngerng is now facing legal fees of at least S$70,000 — which does not include the penalty he will suffer for “damages” once a PAP-controlled court pronounces him guilty, as will almost certainly happen.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority ruthlessly enforces an “Internet Code of Practice” that outlaws nearly all kinds of political expression online in Singapore — indeed, outlawing much of the critical public discourse that is so necessary to healthy, engaged democracies, which Singapore purports to be. It restricts any online content that could be deemed “objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, or national harmony.”
When those expansive categories can’t be manipulated to shut down commentary the ruling People’s Action Party finds inconvenient, it typically turns to the ancient standby of defamation, which is interpreted with equal latitude by PAP-appointed judges. In Singapore, truth is no defense against a charge of defamation, and the law deems public officials more vulnerable to falsehoods than ordinary citizens, rather than less (as in the US), despite having much more access to media outlets to rebut ideas they claim are false.
Responding to the PM’s lawsuit on May 21, local human rights NGO Maruah hit the nail on the head: “We are concerned that these actions on the part of the Prime Minister will further shrink the space for public discourse in Singapore. A healthy and engaged society calls for diverse, independent voices who will need the space to express their views and face sharp rebuttals if their views are found wanting or even false. These are the first steps to robust critical discourse: being transparent and open … Criticism of key institutions … is best addressed through a right of reply by way of well-reasoned rebuttals, not by this reliance on archaic legal action as a first recourse.”
Many Singapore citizens would seem to agree. Yesterday, just four days after it was begun, a crowdsourced fundraising drive to meet Ngerng’s attorney fees met its goal of raising $70,000. “I will update on the funds raised to be transparent and accountable,” Ngerng wrote, a clear jab at the CPF administrators and the PM.
Consider the hypocrisy here. STOMP is both highly profitable and, coincidentally, owned by some of Singapore’s most powerful interests. The noxious brand of citizen-produced snake-oil that it describes as news presents no threat whatsoever to the PAP or the status quo there. Indeed, STOMP plays an important role in passing off the illusion that Singapore citizens have political agency; of course STOMP is described by its owners as “Asia’s leading citizen-journalism website” despite that it publishes nothing of the sort.
Meanwhile, when presented with an example of actual citizen journalism, Singapore officials have responded with censorship, intimidation, and lawsuits aimed at stifling it through any means possible.
Writing at the Online Citizen at the height of the furor over STOMP (and before the attack on Roy Ngerng was launched), writer Howard Lee puts this incongruity into proper perspective: “Why [do we] have a multitude of media regulations that attempt to ‘manage’ the content of online websites, when the most blatant disregard of these standards is staring [the MDA] in the face? Why focus unnecessary attention on websites that have, on any given day, produced reasonable content that attempt to make a better Singapore, and leave alone a website that has, on any given day, produced content that incites hatred, distrust and finger-pointing among the people?”
It’s impossible to look at the current debate without thinking, also, of last summer’s Free My Internet campaign, a populist response to a slate of restrictive new licensing regulations the MDA imposed on any website it finds to be trafficking in “news” under the vaguest of definitions. Free My Internet’s supporters stood not just for free expression but also for the openness and responsibility of the Internet and its users. A petition by FMI to have the new regulations withdrawn last summer gathered a total of 4,000 signatures from Singapore’s 5 million citizens — a fifth of what the petition to kill STOMP has pulled in to date. Yet where FMI championed openness and wider access to views and opinions, the petition to shut down STOMP is rooted in the discouraging notion that when faced with offensive speech, the best response is to shut it down rather than to engage intelligently with that speech in reasoned, critical, open discourse. Sound familiar?
Let me be clear: there’s nothing inherently wrong with what STOMP is doing. Internet shaming is not the noblest of online practices, but neither is it always a testament to our basest instincts. In China, resourceful citizens there have turned the practice into a powerful check on official corruption and a force for transparency. A wave of photographs of low-level officials wearing expensive luxury timepieces far beyond their ability to afford on the salary of civil servants gave rise to a groundswell of anger and frustration — and even a few criminal convictions — against “watch uncles” there. If STOMP were to refocus its so-called citizen journalism on the real perps in Singapore society — the ones at the top — as citizens in China did, it might actually be worthy of the name. But that seems unlikely to happen.
Those who were present during the heady, early days of the Internet can be forgiven for claiming, at the time, that it was a great leveler — that it would wrest control of information away from governments and corporations and hand it over to the masses, finally tipping the balance of power in favor of ordinary citizens. Everything and anything seemed possible at the time. But as we’ve learned many times since then, powerful interests do not acquiesce so easily, and it’s questionable whether citizens in many societies even want this responsibility, much less whether they are willing to risk their own security to exercise it.
It remains to be seen whether netizens in Singapore will ever be willing or able to carry the banner of citizen journalists with any real claim to the title. The PAP, the MDA and state-owned media outlets will likely continue to suppress real public debate while giving a free pass to pablum, like that discharged by STOMP, passing itself off as news.
On the other hand, it’s just possible that, as Seoul subway riders did nearly a decade ago, Singapore citizens will someday get tired of getting pooped on, and decide to do something about it.