Oct 20, 2014 · 4 minutes

On Friday, I made the should-be uncontroversial point that Michael Heyward, the CEO of Whisper, should respond to the privacy scandal that continues to obliterate public trust in his company.

Specifically, I wrote, Heyward needs to either make a clear statement in support of staffer Neetzan Zimmerman’s claim that the Guardian fabricated its reporting into Whisper’s user privacy policies, or he needs to refute it and fire Zimmerman. Only by making clear his own position can Heyward reassure Whisper users that he had any clue, or concern over, what is being done with their data.

Some hours later, Heyward finally issued a statement on the scandal, published on Medium which is rapidly becoming the second step in the established playbook for handling scandals around anonymity apps (Step one: Fool GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram into simperingly and credulously parroting your side of the story by offering him an “exclusive.” See previously.)

Heyward’s statement was a triumph, assuming the metric for triumph is to have successfully communicated to users that you view them as a gaggle of fucking morons; a herd of easily distracted children who can be condescended into silence.

It’s actually hard to fully comprehend the level of sneering contempt for users' intelligence that's necessary to type the following words…

Our company is built on the values of honesty and transparency. Rather than further debate the Guardian’s methods or allegations, I’d like to reiterate our approach to protecting your privacy:
Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? “Our company is built on the values of honesty and transparency” and for that reason I’m not going to discuss the allegations made against Whisper. Instead I’m going to babble on for hundreds of words – words which couldn't reek more of PR person had they been printed on the side of a Pumpkin Spice Latte cup – about how important your privacy is to us and how we would never, ever do any of the things that the Guardian has demonstrated beyond any real doubt that we absolutely do do.

Heyward keeps administering that “transparency” and “openness” placebo through to the last paragraph:

Finally, we appreciate the importance of open and transparent communication. We will keep you updated on our progress as we incorporate feedback and continue to improve the Whisper experience. In the meantime we welcome scrutiny because it makes us better. I encourage you to share your thoughts with me directly at michael@whisper.sh.
Note that Heyward encourages us to share our thoughts, not to actually ask him any questions or to expect any reply. Sure enough, when I emailed him to ask whether he stands by Zimmerman’s claims that the Guardian’s story is fabricated, the response I received was more deafening silence. Whisper.shhhh indeed.

But that remains the one question Heyward must answer if he wants this scandal to go away. His editor in chief has accused the Guardian of what Jay Rosen called “a newsroom scandal bigger than Jayson Blair.” Either Heyward shares Zimmerman's view, in which case he should simply say so and reassure us all that Whisper isn't staffed by creepy stalkers only in the deranged imaginings of a Pulitzer-winning British newspaper. Phew!

Or he disagrees with Zimmerman – which is to say, Heyward admits that someone at Whisper likely did say all of the horrible things the Guardian’s reporters quoted them saying. In which case readers need to be assured that that person is no longer employed at Whisper, and that a full, very public investigation is being mounted into the substance of the claims.

[Update: Heyward admits he has no idea whether the Guardian’s reporting on Whisper is accurate]

I wish I could say I don’t understand Heyward’s reluctance to pick a side. I understand it very well. Heyward has bet his company’s future on persuading media partners to use Whisper’s content in their newsgathering, and many of those partners will want to know that Whisper is able to invade users’ privacy sufficiently to enable follow-up reporting. Heyward needs users to believe their data is safe, and media partners to believe it isn't. Then there's the related fact that Heyward has made a huge bet on Zimmerman’s abilities as a viral genius. He really, really doesn’t want to have to fire his star.


Whisper is a company which asks users to share their deepest, darkest secrets, under a guarantee of anonymity. When, earlier this year, Target’s customer data was exposed due to the company’s carelessness, CEO Gregg Steinhafel, “held himself personally accountable and pledged that Target would emerge a better company,” according to a company statement – he later resigned. The foreseeable consequence of cavalier data management at Target is widespread financial inconvenience for customers. The foreseeable consequence of cavalier data management at Whisper is mass suicide.

By refusing to answer one simple question – does he echo Zimmerman’s claim that the Guardian fabricated its reporting? -- Heyward continues to show the worst kind of leadership (that is, no leadership at all), while allowing the cancer which the Guardian identified inside his company to continue growing.


Update: Heyward admits he has no idea whether the Guardian’s reporting on Whisper is accurate