It might have been the wrong choice.
Last night, the Southeast Asian tech community was struck by a tidal wave from Malaysia and the name of the person who made the wave was Julian Ee. In a remarkably long blog post, the now ex-CTO of the Malaysian startup GrabGas detailed a story of a cooking gas delivery company full of misleading promises, unethical shareholder agreements and sketch payment practices.
The story went absolutely viral — and once again reminded us that it is impossible to predict what will ‘hit’ amidst the mountain of content created every day.
Why it went viral is anyone’s guess. It was buoyed to a certain extent by Ee himself sharing it on some startup Facebook groups, but people do that all the time and rarely (actually ‘never’ is a more apt word) does it explode like Ee’s story.
I (yes, me, which I’ll explain in a moment) was suddenly standing over an ocean of traffic, holding a cup, and all I had to do was bend over and scoop my share of the riches.
Instead, I stood there and let the tide subside. Why?
It was impossible figure out what was happening.
Here’s the breakdown:
I saw the article at around 4pm. At about 5-6pm, a colleague of mine managed to get in touch with the GrabGas Co-founders Sean Woo and Jeson Lee Junzhen for their reaction. They told us they were about to enter an emergency meeting to hash out how to handle the situation and would not comment at the moment. At about 10pm they posted the following statement:
At around 9pm, Ee himself gave me permission to repost the entire blog on e27‘s platform — but by that point, the toss paper flames had become a brush fire and I did not want to get burned trying to contain the article. Also, it had reached peak virality at that point, so it seemed pointless.
Even Ee was surprised by the attention the post got, saying on Facebook last night he “was expecting just one or two responses, a couple of ‘I feel you man’ and that’s it”.
Like a fire, it had gotten completely out of control.
And anyone outside of GrabGas could in no way confirm if Ee was telling the truth or lying (the reality most surely lies somewhere in between).
Furthermore, as a media organisation, we are a go-to outlet for people, who are extremely pissed at their former company, to air both valid and exaggerated grievances. Disgruntled employees are an amazing source for journalists, they are also untrustworthy and the stories need to be confirmed.
Sadly, in the modern media environment, the time it takes to confirm the facts is the time it takes for a viral story to become ‘old news’. (Go watch John Oliver’s recent segment on the state of modern journalism).
I was staring at a ‘J-school lecture’ ethical dilemma — do I publish for guaranteed traffic? Even while potentially promoting misleading information?
I made an instinctual decision to restrain myself, because nobody remembers the second article.
If I wrote a blow-by-blow account of Ee’s post, it would get amazing traffic and people would talk about it. The problem is, if it were untrue and I wrote the follow-up ‘retraction’ article, nobody would read it and the incorrect first article would still be what the general public remembered.
That being said, I am self-aware enough to realise how not publishing the GrabGas story appears, especially when other outlets do publish (to be fair, Vulcan Post was specifically targeted in the article, so the need to respond is justified).
It was the top story of Friday, and until now, we did not have an article covering the events. I understand that, to an outsider, it looks like we either missed the boat, or (God forbid) white-washed.
That’s why they call it an ethical dilemma, it’s not supposed to be an easy choice. And honestly, the resulting effect is not proving itself to be any more clear.
I am still not entirely sure I made the right decision. But it was that, a decision. Not a mistake.
It is both an honour and a responsibility that our reader’s approach the website with the mindset that they do. They do not read us like Thought Catalog or Upworthy. Rather, e27 is read with the same mindset as the Straits Times or Channel News Asia.
When we write about driverless taxis, people believe it because it is the truth. And when we make mistakes, we hear about it because people expect us to be accurate.
As I was trying not to drown in Julian Ee’s tidal wave, I did not feel confident in the accuracy of the information being presented.
So I made a choice. And it might have been the wrong choice.
But I am OK with it.