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Anonymous Apps Like Whisper and Secret Have a Dark Side

Abusive language and bullying have brands proceeding with caution

Illustration: Alvaro DomInguez

An increasingly popular category of social media presents an enticing but potentially risky proposition for brands eager to reach teens and young adults. Services such as Ask.fm, Secret, Whisper and Yik Yak let individuals communicate anonymously, boasting millions of highly engaged users, many in the 18-24 sweet spot for brands.

Marketers are putting their campaigns on these “anonymous apps” but proceeding with caution given the potential downside of appearing on platforms associated with cyberbullying, abusive content, teen suicide and, in the case of Ask.fm, reported recruitment by radical jihadist group ISIS. “As an advertiser, you always think about that kind of thing,” says Megan Wahtera, svp of interactive marketing at Paramount Pictures. Last month, the studio launched its first ad campaign in an anonymous app, tapping Whisper to help promote Men, Women and Children.

“The safety of our community is always a concern for us,” says Tom Fishman, vp of content marketing and social media at MTV, which has used Whisper to hype its quirky Virgin Territory.

Fishman notes that MTV has a long-running effort against abuse via digital media—dubbed AThinLine.org—so the network is sensitive to the issues swirling around anonymous apps. “Sadly, bullying seems to be an endemic social media dynamic regardless of the level of identity or anonymity,” he says. “It’s up to community managers and the platforms themselves to create safe spaces for conversation and engagement.”

But critics of anonymous apps say that’s exactly where they have failed to step up their game. They contend that such venues have been slow to address safety issues and believe that the category continues to pose a disproportionately high threat for bullying and malicious communications.

While each of the services is different in design and functionality, the most popular share similarities that give critics cause for concern. The apps largely serve as digital confessionals, encouraging users to share information they’d likely keep private if their identities were known. Users can share secrets on Secret, trade whispers on Whisper, yak it up on Yik Yak, or ask and answer questions on Ask.fm. Regardless of the format, they’re having conversations with other users, and the range of topics is broad. Trivial exchanges about clothes, cars, food, friends and entertainment abound. Discussions about sex and drugs are also fairly common. But troubling observers is the fact that abusive language and bullying behavior, while relatively rare, are persistent problems.

“My ethical compass is very uncomfortable with the anonymity,” says family therapist Karren Garrity, author of the book The Tool Box: Tricks of the Trade for Raising Teenagers. “While the intent may have been to create a place for personal expression, the way it is often being used is extremely harmful.” Garrity believes such apps “can be more problematic than the traditional, nondigital forms of harassing and taunting others. Once bullying becomes digital, it follows you everywhere—there is no sense of safety or protection.”

The Secret’s Out
Critics maintain that anonymity is a double-edged sword. While it lets the public frankly discuss issues they might not otherwise in an open forum, cloaking one’s identity leads some to believe they can tease and troll others at will.

This is especially true among kids, teens and adults in their early 20s—groups not known for their restraint and self-control. (The penetration of these apps is high among young people. Nine percent of Internet users ages 10-18 in the U.S. use Ask.fm on a daily basis, while about 5 percent utilize Secret, Whisper and Yik Yak every day, according to research data from McAfee.)

“They may be feeling power for the first time,” says anti-bullying activist Mike Dreiblatt, co-author of the book How to Stop Bullying and Social Aggression. “For some young people, that can be intoxicating. They don’t know when to stop. Cyberbulling and anonymous apps go hand in hand.”

As we all know, the ramifications can be devastating. The advocacy site NoBullying.com has linked seven teen suicides to bullying endured on Ask.fm. One highly publicized case involved 14-year-old English schoolgirl Hannah Smith, who hanged herself in August 2013. Her father blamed abusive posts on Ask.fm for driving his daughter over the edge. British Prime Minister David Cameron publicly lambasted the company, advising it to “clean up its act.” In an odd twist, a police official said at an inquest that Smith probably trolled herself, but the episode cast anonymous apps in a very bad light. The story resurfaced with a vengeance last month when Barry Diller’s IAC surprised industry watchers by acquiring Ask.fm. IAC now operates the service under the aegis of its Ask.com property.

The Ask.fm purchase came two months after a Daily Mail story alleged that a British ISIS fighter was using Ask.fm to promote recruitment. The paper reported: “A man calling himself Abu Abdullah Al Brittani gave detailed information on how Iraq-bound Westerners can exchange currencies to an Ask.fm user who described himself as ‘underage,’ said he had never traveled alone before, and expressed concern about his mother and father finding out.”

Ask.fm management told the Mail at the time that such usage violated its terms of service and that it would cooperate with law enforcement on the case.

MTV used Whisper to promote Virgin Territory. A network
exec calls the app 'a unique space' for personal conversation.

But the episode proved to be yet another strike against Ask.fm in particular, and further sullied the anonymous apps category in general. Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds, who oversees Ask.fm for IAC, insists that he will do whatever it takes to make the service as safe as possible. He concedes that the acquisition carries risks, but says adding Ask.fm gives the company “a meaningful foothold in both mobile and social.” Ask.fm tallied almost 105 million mobile uniques in August; 45 percent of its active monthly users on mobile log in every day.

Along with the Ask.fm acquisition, a flurry of coverage about Secret last month put the anonymous app debate back on the front burner. Secret co-founder and CEO David Byttow was taken to task by news site PandoDaily for what its editors perceived as an uncaring attitude toward cyberbullying. Secret was also scrutinized by Fortune and Wired, while a Brazilian court ordered Apple and Google to remove Secret from their app stores in the country, where the product had been enjoying phenomenal growth.

Secret quickly implemented changes. Now, if the system detects suspicious keywords or images, the app gives users a chance to “re-think” posting that material. Its software also blocks posts that contain specific names. Byttow declined Adweek’s requests for comment, but in response to Pando, he said: “Suicide prevention is something we take very seriously,” adding, “We provide resources for users to either contact help via phone or online.”

Also last month, Whisper relaunched Your Voice, its nonprofit digital platform which will now serve as a means for users to share stories about their struggles with depression and other mental illnesses and, Whisper hopes, support each other with advice and information. The app’s founders have invested$1 million to support that mission.

Broader App-eal?
Despite their risky rep, these apps present opportunities that are simply too irresistible to marketers. “It’s a way to access the millennial audience, and that’s a very difficult audience to reach,” says Eric Yellin, svp, content and distribution at Whisper, which, he says, boasts 6 billion monthly pageviews, with “a vast majority” of its audience ages 18-24. (Yellin says Whisper employs 130 content moderators and does not hesitate to delete posts or ban users if things get out of hand.)

Thus far, ads in the space are in the experimental stage. Yik Yak runs no ads at all. Gap ran a test on Secret in February. Ask.fm hosts banners, placed programmatically, from Allstate and Converse, among others.


Paramount’s Wahtera believes Whisper, meanwhile, was the perfect vehicle for promoting Men, Women and Children, which deals with the complexity of personal relationships and emotional isolation in the digital age. Adds MTV’s Fishman, “The target audience for us is young millennials, which Whisper attracts in droves. Whisper offers a unique space to engage in a conversation that’s very personal. People have outright thanked MTV on Whisper for airing a show so relatable to their experiences.”

Many expect anonymous apps to gain popularity as ad vehicles. Despite their flaws, they argue, the apps provide a needed outlet for honest conversation, especially in an era of more surveillance and political correctness. “There’s a sense of liberation and freedom that comes from expressing yourself openly and honestly, without judgment,” says Brad Kay, president of marketing agency SS+K. “As more people discover this, they’ll contribute more and more often to these platforms.”

David Chao, co-founder of VC firm DCM, chalks up the current controversy over the apps to growing pains, predicting “a handful of winners” will come to dominate the market. (Yik Yak, which launched late last year, has received an additional $10 million in funding in a DCM-led Series-A round.)

“These apps are demonized because they’re new,” adds Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that supports digital rights. “There’s a tendency to blame the technology or the modality.” Working through issues like bullying and abuse, he says, “are part of the free-speech bargain. Those costs are something that we deal with. No right-thinking person says free speech has no cost.” 

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