Jose Silva, of Grand Prairie, Tex., sent a series of Whisper messages from inside his car as SWAT teams gathered around him. Around 6 p.m., police were able to force him from the car with chemical canisters, NBC reports, and take him to a local medical center for mental evaluation.
But by that point, Silva had already confessed to planning a so-called “suicide by cop” — and given Whisper what might be the app’s first major, breakthrough news moment.
“This may be the biggest news we’ve ever had on the app,” said Neetzan Zimmerman, Whisper’s editor in chief. “… I feel, in some way, that Whisper helped lead to a peaceful resolution.”
That’s huge, for a service that’s angled itself less as a Post-Secret style confessional, and more as a novel way to do news. In January, the app hired Zimmerman, previously Gawker’s viral traffic guru — the better to allow media “to go places they normally couldn’t,” as Zimmerman puts it now. By March, the app had partnered with Buzzfeed to deliver those kinds of insights to a wider audience, often with striking results: the site has run compilations of confessions from Wal-Mart employees, military members and disgruntled Disney workers, among others. NBC ran, in June, an entire story around Whispers from Iraq, including one that suggested other social networks had been shuttered there.
Essentially, Whisper is saying, it isn’t just a place for bored teenagers to whine about their love lives — it’s a far more transformative medium.
“Watergate started from an anonymous source, and that remains one of the most important stories in American history,” Zimmerman said. “With Whisper, you have access to millions of potential Deep Throats.”
But just like anonymous sources of the more analog variety, Whisper’s sources come with credibility risks — not to mention a whole new “dark side” of their own. Because Whisper disassociates a user’s name from his posts, it’s easy for bullying, misinformation, abuse and mental illness to fester without consequence. In the case of Silva — who was considering suicidal, according to both his user history within the app, and the tip police received from his girlfriend — Whisper served as a platform to broadcast what he thought could be his last moments, even as police negotiators tried to talk him off the edge.
To further complicate things, Silva wasn’t just broadcasting his take on the standoff: He was also contacted, via direct message, by an employee on Whisper’s news team after a site moderator flagged his posts. In a private conversation with Silva, Whisper learned that he didn’t actually have a gun but was suicidal, among other things. And once Whisper had verified that Silva was indeed where he claimed to be, the app published that information and forwarded it to local police. Zimmerman credits that, in part, for the standoff’s peaceful resolution: had police believed Silva was armed, he points out, things may have ended differently.
But that narrative could be framed another way, too: In the midst of a serious police standoff, a Whisper employee was just casually chatting with a potentially dangerous man. Zimmerman insists any journalist would do the same. But traditionally, journalists have tried, very deliberately, to tell the story without influencing or disrupting it themselves (… particularly when they lack the expertise of, say, SWAT negotiators). And Whisper’s new vision for borderless, anonymous, real-time news very much risks crossing that line, into irresponsible territory.
Wouldn’t the narrative be different if, after chatting with Whisper’s news team, Silva had gotten out of the car to confront police — and been shot down?
“Look, it’s unchartered territory,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a new way to do news. It’s a new way to engage with people. As far as ethics go, you can see it both ways. But when there’s a news story, you have a responsibility to get the other side out. Especially when you’re only seeing a very one-sided view of the news.”