Ah, finally. Socio-political site The Real Singapore (TRS) gets its just deserts.
Two of its editors have been arrested last week for offenses under the Sedition Act, though TRS said that only one editor was investigated for a crime that could result in a fine of up to S$5,000, three years of imprisonment, or both.
Its only known members being three university students (
one of them not ironically even a Singaporean), TRS' editorial team has built up a fan-base that is to be reckoned with. Its modus operandi utilises four of these classic tactics, often used in conjunction.
2) Sensationalise news reported by mainstream media -
"As the government continues to import new immmigrants, population pressures will likely cause our homes to continue shrinking."
So much for a website that claims not to encourage xenophobia. There are only two 'M's in immigration, by the way.
3) Publishing stories from unidentifiable/unverifiable sources -
Straight from the horse's mouth:
Well, if you can't verify it, then maybe you shouldn't be publishing it. #justsaying.
4) Validating racism and xenophobia, as seen in the latest Thaipusam incident which led to their arrest -
We know freedom of speech is important, but it has its limits in a diverse society like Singapore. As a Singaporean, I consider lending a voice to xenophobes and racists as unethical and unacceptable. Is The Real Singapore shirking its responsibility just because they believe the racists' concerns?
Disturbingly, this content strategy has worked miracles. From a pure marketing standpoint, TRS' founders would put most local publications (this one included, sadly) to shame. Their brainchild is by all standards, wildly popular.
With over 412,000 fans on Facebook, TRS outranks Singapore's most famous blogger Xiaxue (349,315), troll-page SMRT Ltd (Feedback) (230,108) and comes really close to giving both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (495, 263) and mainstream daily The Straits Times (474,321) a run for their money.
A search on web traffic data company Alexa reveals that it is the 68th most popular site in Singapore, just 12 places behind The Straits Times' 'citizen journalism' site STOMP – another menace that deserves an article of its own. TRS claimed to have over 1.2 million unique visitors each month, with more than 10 million monthly page views.
Nothing short of impressive, considering that the site has been around for less than a decade, and has what appears to be a relatively small team.
It all just goes to show that sensationalism and vitriol always sells.
And sell it did. While you were shaking your fist at yet another 'Foreigners are taking our jobs' story or sympathising with how the poor were living hand to mouth, TRS' editors were reportedly making a small fortune thanks to the website's considerable advertising and bragging to their families about it.
Yes, Singaporeans have fed the proverbial troll.
According to various site evaluation websites, TRS' monthly advertising revenue could be any of the following: US$7,918 [S$10,778] (SitePrice.org), US$11,619 [S$15,817] (Webuka.com) and US$30,690 [S$41,778] (MCJonline). Not too shabby, if you ask me.
Turns out that being an expert with 'CTRL + V' does offer a lucrative career path, after all.
Let’s recap. A site spouting untruths that threaten Singapore’s peaceful society whose founders are getting paid handsomely for sowing discord.
“But wait, two editors have been brought to light,” you exclaim.
In fact, Yahoo News reported that there were "more cheers than jeers online" over the arrests. Ex-Singapore Democratic Party member Jeremy Chen has called for TRS to be "held accountable for all the xenophobia it promotes and profits off of".
Perhaps moderate opposition supporters would soon celebrate the downfall of a site that makes all non-PAP supporters seem like radical extremists.
So problem solved, right?
But the battle is far from over. The questionable practices of TRS' editorial team are only the tip of the iceberg. If there is one thing we can learn from this unfortunate episode, it is that ignorance has reached epidemic levels. TRS was only so successful because there are too many Singaporeans who read online news and take things at face value.
Killing TRS won’t solve the problem. Before long, TRS could see itself resurrected. Another name, different editors. The same shoddy excuse for a different type of journalism online.
Because if there is one thing that Singaporeans love more than a site that feeds their confirmation bias, it's money. There are profits to be made from hate. Opportunists rejoice.
It's strange that while the average Singaporean (forgive the pun) is a healthy skeptic of reporting by mainstream media, the same savviness is not observed with alternative media.
The average Singaporean needs to be more aware about agenda-setting, advertorials, who’s-paid-to-write-what and the extent that people will go to obtain page-views, likes, and clickthroughs. That means questioning everything we read, and being aware of concepts such as self-censorship, media ethics and how media organisations make money in general.
But yes, we could all start by not feeding the troll.
Top photo from The Real Singapore.