There is an anonymous app called Whisper. Users can anonymously post anything. For example, as a user, I could float out a message to the public that I’m lonely without anyone knowing it was me. Or that I hate my boss. Or that my boss was doing cocaine in her office at work yesterday. Or that I witnessed you making inappropriate remarks at the bar last night before driving home drunk…anonymously. Legal libel. Scary, right? Put anonymous apps in the hands of highschoolers and what do you get? Suicides.
Enter the media. No, not the media condemning anonymous sources with no accountability, the media looking to monetize their influence. At this point, media ethics get so foggy they barely exist. Until now, sources have remained anonymous at times for the sake of security, but have always been vetted by the journalists and editors using them in stories. In fact, journalists have staked their reputations and careers on the word of their sources, and many have risked their own livelihoods to protect their identities.
What if those sources weren’t vetted at all? What if they didn’t even know they were being used as media sources? That’s exactly what happened when Whisper enticed and convinced the likes of BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and Fusion to form business partnerships.
BuzzFeed went as far as assigning 15 journalists to begin sourcing stories from Whisper. What most people don’t realize about BuzzFeed is that it’s now valued at $850 million and brought in a Pullitzer Prize winning journalist last year to lead its investigative unit. That’s right, BuzzFeed is trying to get into serious news.
So Whisper had signed BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and others, then they got cocky. Or stupid. Let’s get The Guardian, they said. They broke the Snowden story, they love anonymous sources, they’ll love us. The Guardian did not love them, they screwed them. During the thee-day trip, Whisper executives let two journalists in on a little secret: their anonymous users, even those who explicitly opted out of being tracked, weren’t so anonymous after all. According to The Guardian, they were most certainly being tracked. And The Guardian told the world.
Now, you can see how that would be appealing to a media outlet, especially in the world of instant information. Unethical, but appealing. BuzzFeed has issued a PR statement saying that they are “taking a break from our partnership until Whisper clarifies to us and its users the policy on user location and privacy.” Notice that they did not deny knowledge of the program. And how could could they, it would seem that they agreed to the same partnership offered to The Guardian.
Which all leads to two simple questions:
- While Whisper approaches a potential investigation into violated user agreements and unethical behavior, should business partners like BuzzFeed, assuming they knew full well about the tracking program, be allowed to so easily wash their hands of all wrongdoing?
- Why have no major media outlets that have closely followed this story, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, etc., etc., etc., placed any blame or brought into question the responsibility of media outlets that partnered with Whisper?