This post is written in response to Bertha Henson’s “Bringing Bloggers to Heel Part 2“. I also have qualms with her Part 1, but I’ll likely be taking that up in another post. Bertha: don’t take this personally, k?
I’m also publishing this now (apologies to the old man) because of the Advertising Standards Authority has voiced its interest in stepping in to formulate a social media advertising code, and The Blogfather feels it urgent enough to butt in on this discussion and put some things in perspective before we all run amok with these great ideas we have right now.
What the hell happened (well, for Singapore bloggers, anyway)
When news first broke that Xiaxue decided to give Gushcloud a Christmas present wrapped in stale scandal, many bloggers in my community said it was just another overly melodramatic, orchestrated show to possibly revive the blogging career of a waning Internet starlet.
But while it may have been fun for most to watch those involved waving verbal attacks and legal actions like spell incantations and wands in the episode of “Fairy Blogger and the Order of the Personal Protection“, the exchange was raising genuine industry malpractices that media practitioners have been all too familiar with, and I verily believed this was the beginning of a paradigm shift for the blogging community at large.
Who is qualified enough to define our sins?
While it is true that no one has thought of publicly discussing ethical guidelines for paid blogging (although in the private blogger circles I hang out in, ethics have been actively raised for years now), some of us will remember that the then Ministry of Information and the Arts did moot the possibility of an Internet code of conduct, going as far as to set up a Council to moot the idea. But it ultimately fell flat, mainly due to opposition from the alt news community.
Now, this may not be an apple-to-apple example of what is happening now, seeing as the context to that discussion arose from a dismal lack of manners and etiquette in the local online sphere, rather than a need for regulation in blogging as a commercial undertaking. But it just goes to show that the online community has been acutely conscious of its own shortcomings (over various perspectives at that) for a while now.
Then again, on the point of “paid blogging” — it goes by other names as well, like “sponsored blogging”, “blogger advertising”, “social media marketing”, “influencer marketing”, and this latest which quite a few of us seriously don’t think is going to catch on, “digital tastemaking” — call it what you want, but the vast majority of Singaporean bloggers, be they lifestyle, parenting, food, recipe, sociopolitical, or any other field of interest you can think of, don’t see ourselves as commercial entities (actually, nobody considers us commercial entities). Sure, some of us may be represented by blogger management agencies such as Gushcloud, Nuffnang, and you can maybe even count Singapore Press Holdings’ own blogger club Omy, but by and large, we’ve all still got day jobs – if we’re not students, retired or stay-at-home parents. And we’re just doing all this for fun (yes, I actually find write serious responses to ex-SPH editors fun), with the reassurance to ourselves that we can stop any time without much consequence (kind of like smoking).
That said, we do understand that the longer we do it, the more reputation we build, and the more opportunities we open ourselves to as a result, so those of us that have been doing it for more than a couple of years now do take our online activities rather seriously. A number of us are even aware of (and actively adopting) a set of digital advertising disclosure guidelines by the US Federal Trade Commission, based on basic advertising laws, not unlike our own Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) for media practitioners (which also explains why the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore is now looking to step in with new interactive advertising guidelines).
Except that where the US government sees fit to regulate the advertising industry by law, Singapore’s SCAP is a mere self-regulatory initiative that has to depend on the industry’s endorsement in order to work, and one that continues to see limited success. Bertha Henson has remarked that advertisers try to push their luck with buying editorial mentions, “to lull readers/viewers into thinking that independent judgement has been exercised and there was no lure of the lucre.” And that is the reality; offline and online commercial publications alike still offer advertising term packages with editorial tie-ups, media still accept and keep product samples and working units, food, drink and complimentary services in return for reviews and write-ups, and company press releases are accepted and published with little or no edits, all without any form of advertising disclosure. Though I understand that during her time with the national daily, Bertha worked hard to implement strict house rules to avoid these very activities, at best she could only have enforced these rules in her house. And as respected a veteran journalist and newspaper editor as she is/was, she now no longer lives in that house.
Everyone, welcome to hell
You probably get the idea now that trying to come up with a set of “ethical guidelines for paid bloggers” is a rather myopic, narrow-minded, and quite honestly, stifling approach to a much larger problem (which is why I am very glad that we can all still blog about it for public scrutiny and discourse). This is a dirty game we’re all playing, where the words we print in black and white are coloured with 50 shades of media advertising tactics, and no one wants to take anyone seriously, not the government, not the professionals, not the non-professionals, and not any of our readers and followers. So bloggers, media practitioners, marketing and PR agencies, advertisers, and authorities alike: there’s going to be a place in hell for every single one of us (with Fairy Blogger sitting in the throne), unless we all clean up our act.
And for that to happen, we’re all going to need to have a serious talk together.