Two months ago, in a post titled “Should Sources Whisper?,” I called into question the ethics of sourcing stories using anonymous leads. I specifically focused on the anonymous app Whisper, which had recently developed partnerships with news outlets (however loose that term has become) including BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post.
The Guardian dealt a potentially fatal blow to the app, which has been valued at over $200 million, when it reported on Thursday that Whisper has been tracking users, even those who explicitly opted out of its geolocation services.
According to The Guardian, “Whisper has developed an in-house mapping tool that allows its staff to filter and search GPS data, pinpointing messages to within 500 meters of where they were sent.” If users opt out of being tracked, and are of particular interest to Whisper, they’re simply tracked anyway, without their knowledge, using IP data transmitted from their smartphones. [pullquote]“Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real, the only thing that really matters is whether people click on it,” Zimmerman unwittingly told The Daily Show in July in a calm manner, implying that he did not understand why that statement should be terrifying to anyone concerned about the future of journalism.[/pullquote]
Self-described as “the safest place on the internet” and “the first completely anonymous social network,” Whisper appears to be anything but.
What may be most surprising is how The Guardian obtained this information. They were invited to the company’s LA headquarters last month and spent three days there “to explore the possibility of an expanded journalistic relationship with Whisper.” During the visit, two journalists from The Guardian, who were not asked to sign any sort of NDAs, were informed of plans to make the mapping tool available to select journalists this year, secretly making the anonymous app not anonymous at all. They are no longer pursuing that relationship.
Following the article from The Guardian on Thurdsay, a BuzzFeed representative announced that they would be putting their relationship, which currently involves 15 journalists using the app, on hold “until Whisper clarifies to us and its users the policy on user location and privacy.”
Note that BuzzFeed did not deny knowledge of these plans, or of what would appear to be direct violations of user agreements up to this point. They simply worded their statement to make sure that the blame rests solely on the shoulders of Whisper executives like social parasite Neetzan Zimmerman, who also happens to be Whisper’s editor-in-chief.
“Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real, the only thing that really matters is whether people click on it,” Zimmerman unwittingly told The Daily Show in July in a calm manner, implying that he did not understand why that statement should be terrifying to anyone concerned about the future of journalism.
But as much as BuzzFeed would like it to be the case, the blame in this situation does not rest solely on the shoulders of Whisper executives. News outlets anonymously sourcing stories are equally, if not more, responsible for any harm that results from them. Sources have always been a topic of heated debate in the media, but every respectable news outlet has had rules in place demanding journalistic integrity. Granted, the rules have been violated time and time again, but they’ve been there. There have been many circumstances where sources have remained anonymous to the public, but not to journalists staking their reputation on them. To knowingly enter into a relationship where sources are not vetted and any anonymous claim can be broadcast to millions, through news media, is beyond irresponsible and lowers journalistic standards to a point so low it’s almost inconceivable.
Zimmerman and Whisper co-founder Michael Heyward claim to have some idealistic vision for the app. It’s a safe place for whistleblowers, they claim, a “trusted haven.” Obviously not. Maybe trusted, but not trustworthy. Plus, who wants the guy whose biggest claim to fame (speaking of Zimmerman again) has been breaking the story, again anonymously sourced, that Gwyneth Paltrow was cheating on her husband? Now think back to his comment about the inconsequential nature of facts, and his singular focus on how many clicks a story gets. Not exactly the person to lead us into the land of true transparency.
In theory, there are benefits to anonymous apps. They really could serve as a safe haven for whistleblowers, if managed by the right people. Unfortunately, in reality, anonymous apps have been responsible for more teen suicides than any meaningful whistleblower revelations.
It’s concerning to me that The Guardian was even considering a relationship with Whisper, but they’ve done us a great service by passing onto the public what was communicated to them during their visit behind closed doors.
In the case of false anonymously-sourced stories, all parties should be held responsible: the source (who we now know is not anonymous, even if they’ve been led to believe they are), the anonymous app broadcasting their message, and the media outlets who disseminates the information as fact, or even possibly fact, to the general public.