Mar 24, 2014 · 4 minutes

The ethics of reposting content from social networks was questioned this month when BuzzFeed published a story composed almost entirely of tweets from sexual assault victims. The story quickly morphed from a chance to highlight the ordeals these women faced into a spectacle that prompted some journalists -- including myself -- to wonder about the balance between using Twitter as a reporting tool and using personal messages to drive pageviews. The back-and-forth didn't conclude with a new set of journalistic standards meant to help reporters handle such issues; it just started a conversation we'll be having for years to come.

That conversation is set to continue today with the news that BuzzFeed has partnered with Whisper, the anonymous gossip network that raised $30 million earlier this month. The deal will allow 15 reporters to turn some of the network's most salacious secrets into pageview fodder.

There are two potential problems with this approach: How will BuzzFeed ensure that trolling Whisper for stories won't result in unsubstantiated slander? And how will Whisper's users react to the company's attempts to use their anonymous postings as a journalistic resource?

BuzzFeed is known mostly for blog posts so sweet they would give Willy Wonka a toothache. But the site wasn't above publishing a Whisper post alleging that Gwyneth Paltrow is having an affair with Kevin Yorn -- a claim based entirely on an image shared by an anonymous Whisper user with whom these publications couldn't communicate even if they wanted to. That might be how gossip rags work, but publishing blog posts just because their content was shared on Whisper could undermine BuzzFeed's attempts to prove that it can balance its saccharine listicles with Serious Journalism.

Pando's David Holmes wrote about the Paltrow controversy when Whisper's $30 million funding round came to light, and noted that the network could cause further problems when media organizations or individuals take its image macros as gospel:

It looks like news, it sounds like news, and because it involves sex and celebrities people will click on it. But it also comes from an anonymous, invisible source offering no proof of authority or trustworthiness. Could it be a lead for an eventual news story? Maybe. But it is not, as Zimmerman put in a tweet, a 'scoop.' And while I’m sure a celebrity like Paltrow is no stranger to unsupported claims (she’s denied the affair, by the way), what happens when the stakes are higher and the victims aren’t public figures? What if, in the wake of a terrorist attack, a Whisper user falsely accuses someone of being behind it, resulting in a witch hunt? The accuser’s intentions may even be good; you know, Reddit never intended to identify the wrong man in the wake of the Boston bombing.
Tasking a 15-person team of journalists with scouring through Whisper's network in search of publishable content isn't always going to turn up stories like "41 Heartbreaking Military Testimonials of Whisper" or the "16 Types of Confessions You Find on Whisper." Every once in a while it's going to result in stories that question the strength of a famous actress's marriage simply because some random person tapped an anonymous message out on their smartphone.

And it's unclear how Whisper's users will react to seeing their secrets on BuzzFeed. Unlike the story that published the photos and names of sexual assault survivors, any stories based on content shared to Whisper will probably feature ugly image macros that don't reveal anything about the person who posted them. The network rose to popularity because it allowed its users to share messages with other users without fear, not because it provided a way for anonymous tipsters to share stories that will eventually find their way to websites with millions of visitors.

As Holmes wrote in his post:

As a network for confessionals, and assuming the best when it comes to anti-bullying moderation, Whisper is a valuable source of entertainment and catharsis. But we live in a world where every tech company wants to become a billion-dollar endeavor, and with $30 million more in the bank, Whisper is definitely pushing to go big. To get there, however, it takes some serious leveraging of the data and content your users provide. And for a platform that encourages the dissemination of deep, dark secrets by anonymous voices, that leveraging could cause some serious collateral damage.
The partnership between these two companies hinges on the belief that they can have it all. BuzzFeed believes it can post inane listicles and anonymously-sourced gossip while also doing original reporting that rivals the journalistic quality of older publications. Whisper believes it can create a network based on anonymous sharing while becoming something of a media company, peddling in secrets and image macros. In that sense, the partnership is a prime example of BuzzFeed's relentless optimism and Whisper's faith that anonymous social networking is the world's next billion dollar idea.

The challenge will be to reconcile those potentially delusional hopes and missions with the messiness that arises when millions of nameless users ramble on to vent or escape reality.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]