Good news: The Real Singapore (TRS) is ordered to shut down.
Yet this will not solve the root cause of the problem.
TRS thrived on spreading misinformation and plagiarism. Sensationalism, even if false, brings advertiser revenue simply due to eyeballs. Other alternative media sites have taken various slants to their house styles for economic viability. Examples of this include Mothership’s “listicle”. It is short and sweet, even if it might be content-devoid. Yet people read them because it gives summary news in a minute or less.
The bigger issue surrounding online media is the issue of media literacy. Do we stop to think, “Is this article believable?” each time we read something? It might seem to be the fault with the education system; reading is first learnt in schools, after all. However, this is a fallacious argument — Singapore has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Why, then, did alternative media like TRS prosper even if they essentially write junk?
It is imperative to understand TRS’s model of economics. It is simple. Three steps to do this:
1. Write something to improve readership.
2. Collect the statistics that readership indeed increased.
3. Show advertisers that TRS has significant volume of traffic, which implies potentially good advertising revenue.
This is the same practice as how bloggers earn their keep. The key is that: quality of articles mean nothing, money-wise, if the readership doesn’t show up. Yet, quality is a subjective term because different people look for different value propositions in terms of quality. For instance, a businessman has little concern for online media because few online sources write financial reviews because the bulk of online readership cares nought for such insights. Yet, the typical university student would not mind sensationalist scandals just to unwind after a long hard day studying.
This leads to a few problems the media industry has to deal with. On one hand, a media outlet cannot survive without sufficient readership. Yet, journalists generally try to uphold standards: accurate reporting, insights and asking the correct questions. These aims do not necessarily converge, giving rise to tensions within the newsroom. This, in part, arose due to the influx of free content. One could choose not to subscribe to any online magazine, yet find out enough about the world just be subscribing to the various news feeds of a diverse selection of news sources ranging from Wired to TIME to BBC News. The fact that content is free means that newsmakers find it near-impossible to make money out of quality insight, which is evident in the decline of paid content such as print media. Even the Straits Times is not spared of it; we may no longer see print newspapers in the future, when everyone is connected online. This naturally means: a newsmaker can only earn money from traffic, which means mass-marketting to the lowest common denominator.
Another issue the media industry has to deal with is openness. It is almost impossible to regulate that bloggers exercise media responsibility and not encourage their readership to commit one of many logical fallacies when commenting on issues. For example, if we cannot certify the 49-year-old who slapped Amos Yee guilty, who are we to comment on whether it was a conspiracy or a mentally unsound slapping Amos? Truth is, the online world has given rise to openness we aren’t used to: anyone can be a content generator, but it is almost impossible to establish any sort of standard. This also leads to the lowest common denominator argument, once again.
Yet, for as long as we are not willing to discern between fact, opinion, propaganda, and untruth, the TRS problem will recur simply because we unwittingly provide traffic for the trolls to earn precious advertising dollars. Maybe, if we were more discerning readers who want quality content, poor media outlets may eventually die a natural death. Before then, we would have to live with opportunists wanting to make a quick buck by selling sensational news that the rest of us might not be comfortable with.
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