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The Whisper Campaign That Torched A Guardian Story

The Guardian went too far in its claims of what Whisper could do and was doing. But so too, it seems, did Whisper.

Posted on March 12, 2015, at 10:04 p.m. ET

Yesterday, Guardian US was forced to print a doozy of a "clarification" and delete another article entirely. It came at a sensitive time for Guardian US Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner, who took the top job at the newpaper's American outpost in summer 2014. Viner is currently campaigning to succeed Alan Rusbridger as editor-in-chief of The Guardian and recently won a staff ballot that made her the front-runner. Her competition for the top job includes former Guardian US chief Janine Gibson, who oversaw the publication's Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Snowden leaks.

In the clarification, many of the central claims the venerable 194-year-old newspaper made about the three-year-old secret-sharing app Whisper, based in Los Angeles, collapsed. It also completely took down an opinion piece it had written on the subject. It was a messy end to a long, protracted negotiation between the two organizations, and there will be no more legal action going forward, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

The media plays a huge role in anointing which tech companies will succeed and which will fail. And early last year, Whisper was an heir apparent. Not only were secret-sharing apps starting to gain prominence — Whisper was one of a handful of hot-shit services that included Secret and Yik Yak — but its hire of Neetzan Zimmerman, the Gawker Media king of viral content, to serve as its editor-in-chief gave it massive publicity. When news broke that he was leaving Gawker for Whisper in January of last year, the app became an instant media curiosity. Guardian US (like BuzzFeed) very much helped build Whisper up. And then, in a series of stories that ran last October, it utterly tore it down.

Guardian US claimed that Whisper was tracking users' locations without their permission, effectively spying on them, and that it had updated its terms of service to notify users it was doing this in response to Guardian US reporting. It also noted that Whisper was sharing data with the Department of Defense.

In the somewhat confusingly written clarification, Guardian US yesterday stated that it was "happy to clarify" that IP address data is "a very rough and unreliable indicator of location," that Whisper had drafted changes to its terms of service before Guardian US contacted it, and that it did not share personal information with the Department of Defense.

One of its central claims that it did not walk back, however, was that Whisper was looking at location data of users who had not opted in to having it tracked. Nor did it retract a disputed quote, allegedly made by one of Whisper's executives, claiming it would track a certain lobbyist for the rest of his life.

The bottom line is that the "clarification" did more to muddy things than it did to make them apparent. Still, for Whisper's management, apparently this represents "good enough."

"I think the retractions speak for themselves," Whisper CEO Michael Heyward told BuzzFeed News. "If you look at the core claims, I think they speak for themselves."

Five months later, the legal wrangling is over, but the mystery over what was true remains.

What happened

Early in 2014, more than a year ago now, Whisper began discussions with Guardian US about the ways it could help the paper find new stories. Whisper's pitch was pretty simple: It was sitting on a treasure trove of people's private thoughts, some of them salacious, some of them banal, many of them newsworthy. What's more, it could not only help Guardian US find things people were saying, it could also figure out approximately where those people were. Whisper made similar pitches to a number of media outlets, including BuzzFeed, which worked with the company on a series of stories in 2014.

According to multiple Whisper sources, Guardian US was made aware of all of Whisper's technical abilities during those first discussions — however, BuzzFeed News was not able to verify this claim with Guardian US, which would not comment on the record for our story. "They were very interested in the map tool," said a person with direct knowledge of those early discussions. "So why didn't they write their story that day?"

On Valentine's Day, the first fruits of those discussions went live with a lonely hearts story that mostly involved Guardian US posting to Whisper. It would go on to publish three stories total in conjunction with Whisper during what was a media whirlwind for the company.

In February 2014, Whisper broke the story of Gwyneth Paltrow's affair with Kevin Yorn. In April, Whisper used its location tracking ability to publish a story on BuzzFeed's community content by Zimmerman describing veterans' struggles with PTSD at various military bases. In May, Whisper rolled out a location-based search feature that would let anyone make those kinds of insights.

By June, Guardian US was doing its own sort of promotion of Whisper. It was then, in a story on Iraq war vets, that it wrote, "To make sense of the unfolding chaos in Iraq from the men and women who have served there, we enlisted our friends at Whisper, the secret-sharing app you should download right now for its powers of truth-telling."

In September, during Rosh Hashanah, it sent two reporters, Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe, to meet with Whisper's editorial team in Los Angeles, to learn more about how the startup and old newspaper, which was heavily reinventing itself for the digital era, could work together. Sources at Guardian US insist that this was purely a reporting trip. But at Whisper, others suspect there was an exposé in the works all along.

Regardless of the intent, approximately two weeks after those reporters left, they sent a series of pointed questions to the company which mostly revolved around its ability to track users. Whisper says it replied with evidence that should have mollified Guardian US' concerns, and considered the matter closed.

But on Oct. 16, the Guardian US story dropped. And it was a bomb track.

Whisper disputed the story from the get-go. Zimmerman wrote a series of blistering, over-the-top tweets about the situation — tweets that would eventually cost him his job.

Second response: The Guardian made a mistake posting that story and they will regret it.

Whisper's founder and CEO Michael Heyward published a strongly worded rebuttal to questions posed by Guardian US. Even other media organizations pounced. As Kashmir Hill wrote in Forbes following her investigation into what Whisper had been handing over to the DOD last fall:

So rather than this revealing an invasion of Whisper users' privacy, the info handover reflects how useless big data analysis can sometimes be and the need to check start-ups' claims about the extent of their partnerships with other entities. While it debunks Whisper's claims about partnering with the DoD Suicide Prevention Office, it does bolsters Whisper's argument that the Guardian's report cast the company in an overly negative light and that its portrayal of Whisper's relationship with the Pentagon in particular was a bit "alarmist."

Yet this was all reactive, say sources, who describe a company in disarray after The Guardian's story dropped — a young company led by a young CEO who had only previously known success.

"There was no strategy to the reaction," one source told BuzzFeed News. Zimmerman, meanwhile, was left out to dry. "It was Neetzan's word against the world, against a 150-year-old newspaper."

Whisper suspended its four-person editorial team, and eventually let them all go (including Zimmerman). Whisper sources deny that the stories hurt the company — according to one source, in the weekend following the Guardian US stories, there were only in the neighborhood of 75 mentions of the scandal by Whisper users. And it claims that there was no long-term effect on user growth.

"If anything it was mostly taxing and draining on the team," said Heyward. "They had friends and family members calling and saying, 'What kind of company are you working for?'"

Yet there is evidence that is not the case. In September 2014, for example, Whisper was the 159th most popular app in America, according to App Annie. Today, it's 514th. (Again, Whisper sources say these figures are unreliable and that growth has not flagged.) Meanwhile, many of the editorial organizations it had partnered with — including BuzzFeed — backed out of those agreements.

"My sense it that it obviously had an impact on the company but it wasn't a massive one," said one industry figure familiar with the company. The story "put many of the news partnerships on hold, was a distraction for senior management, created some brand challenges among influencers (not users)," they added, "but that is now being restored given The Guardian's walk back."


What is the truth?

Even though the legal wrangling is over, Whisper still disputes much of the Guardian US reporting. One of the biggest issues that remains disputed is the accuracy of a head-shot anecdote and quote that appeared in the initial story:

Separately, Whisper has been following a user claiming to be a sex-obsessed lobbyist in Washington DC. The company's tracking tools allow staff to monitor which areas of the capital the lobbyist visits. "He's a guy that we'll track for the rest of his life and he'll have no idea we'll be watching him," the same Whisper executive said.

Guardian US, pointedly, did not walk this back. It is not mentioned in the clarification, and thus still remains an on-the-record statement. In other words, The Guardian stands by it.

Sources from Whisper strongly dispute it, however. They claim nobody in the Whisper team that spoke with Guardian US made such comments, and they dispute the allegation altogether. (Although not the existence of the self-described lobbyist, or that a conversation took place about him.)

According to multiple people currently and formerly with the company, tracking which areas of the capital said lobbyist visited was well beyond Whisper's capabilities. Not only was the company not doing this, they say, it wasn't even technically possible. (Indeed, one former Whisper employee describes the company's back end as "a mess" that often was off by as much as a mile on user locations.)

.@kevinroose NO. That is probably the most egregious lie of the bunch. 100% fabricated.

Despite the clarifications, the two sides still very much contradict each other. The Guardian also stands by its reporting that Whisper was "tracking the location of its users, including some who have specifically asked not to be followed." Whisper employees current and former still maintain that location data was collected only on an opt-in basis.

And while among the former members of Whisper's team there is certainly a sense of vindication, there is also certainly some internal sniping among Guardian staffers that in deleting an article, editors rolled over on a respected member of the team.

What does seem clear is that Whisper was selling itself hard, perhaps even overselling its capabilities. It would not be the first time a hot tech startup exaggerated its capabilities to the media.

Yet it also seems clear that The Guardian overstepped too — certainly it did on the items it had to run corrections on.

Everyone screwed up. Everyone overreached. Everyone, on both sides, was trying too hard to get, or to be, a huge story. And in the end they all were, just not in the way anyone hoped.

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