A screengrab from the petition page on Change.org.

People have had enough. After years of “citizen journalism” platform STOMP indulging in public shaming, a petition has popped up on Change.org asking Singapore Press Holdings – the owner and publisher of the website – to shut it down. Started by Robin Li, the petition now has over 22,000 signatures.

The response from both SPH and the Media Development Authority (MDA) has been lukewarm. The MDA took the opportunity to ask people to propose stronger regulatory measures of licensed websites. An editor of the digital media group at SPH’s Digital Division portrayed the issue as one of “freedom of the Internet”, accusing the anti-STOMP camp of hypocrisy. SPH questioned the support the petition is receiving, alleging that the petition could have been astroturfed and that its support base could actually be much smaller. “Under the circumstances, the number of petitioners being cited is likely to be grossly inflated,” said their spokesperson Ginny Lim.

@kixes absolutely atrocious. I take it hugely as an insult. The same can be said for those “Stomp” likes on FB which is unreliable

— Robin Li (@thoughtsovrobin) April 18, 2014

It is of course possible that not all of the over 22,000 signatures are valid. There is always the potential of surveys and petitions being astroturfed, online or offline.

But for SPH to suggest that a huge number of the signatories are false is a weak defense of STOMP. We may quibble about the exact number of signatures on the petition, but SPH is delusional if they do not realize that the opposition to STOMP is significant. Their persistent refusal to admit that there is anything wrong with STOMP casts doubt on their integrity as a media organization; something that ultimately hurts not just its brand, but also the professional reputation of the journalists and other employees who work within the company.

The website has already been called out for both false and bullying posts. These are both things that fall within the remit of the MDA, whose Internet Code of Practice prohibits content that “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance.” The MDA also already has the power to regulate against fake content on websites. If it already has such power, why then is it acting as if it has no knowledge of STOMP’s problems, or that it does not have the ability to do anything beyond issuing statements about not condoning bad behaviour?

Which is why the whole “freedom of the Internet” argument invoked by the SPH editor is simply a red herring. It is not about free speech if the information is false. It is not about free speech if a website is just going to be a repository of bullying, sexism and xenophobia. The petition is directed at SPH rather than the state, which suggests that people are not asking the state to forcibly shut the website down. SPH can continue to publish online, or on any of its numerous print publications. They can even continue publishing on STOMP, but they should know that a significant number of their customers/potential customers want to see some changes.

The petition against STOMP has launched interesting conversations on the media landscape in Singapore and the type of media content that Singaporeans would like to see. Discussions – including those taking place on international news outlets – have taken place on the role of public shaming in the media, and whether it benefits society.

It is unfortunate that SPH and MDA’s responses have indicated an unwillingness to join in on the conversation.