Dating app Tinder can be a tool for journalists

September 18, 2017
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A few weeks ago, I was curious about how the people of Guam were reacting to nuclear threats from North Korea. From a cafe in Washington, DC, I turned to Tinder.

“Yes, a lot of people are flipping out. Even other islands, especially Saipan,” said Edward, a 22-year-old student at the University of Guam. Saipan, as one might guess, is one of Guam’s Pacific neighbors. “Some people want to leave,” he continued, “but they have jobs, and they have people they’re supporting, and they won’t just leave because of a threat that may not even happen.”

Frank, 32, discussed the faith community. “It’s a predominantly Catholic island so just a lot prayers being shot out.” I asked if Guam’s lack of political influence has played a role in their concerns. “All this exchange of egos would bother anyone, I guess. Leaders should be finding resolve instead of adding fuel to the fire (and fury).”

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Ky, a 24-year-old medical assistant, seemed unfazed, sharing “Quite frankly, I am not worried one bit.”

My Tinder profile included a professional photo and read: “I am a journalist, can I ask you a few questions?” I swiped right on several profiles, matched with a few, and simply started talking. Granted, some folks I chatted with later admitted they thought the “journalist” thing was a pickup line. But I started each conversation explaining my intentions and confirming that they were comfortable going on record. In an hour, I had a few new friends and a general idea about the island’s concerns.

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Is this journalism? I think so.

I spent the summer reporting for The GroundTruth Project in Russia, and I had originally used Tinder to find English-speakers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. After befriending some locals, I realized Tinder might be a useful tool for reporters. Returning to the US, I had a group of Russian pen-pals who would happily offer their perspective on current events.

Although it may be atypical, Tinder is a promising resource for journalists who may otherwise hit a dead end.


What is Tinder?

Tinder is a dating app. Users make a profile and swipe left or right on other people’s profiles; you swipe right if you’d like to talk to the person. If both people swipe right on each other, you “match” and can start a conversation. Users set gender, age, and location preferences.

There’s nothing in Tinder’s terms of service that suggests the app can’t legally be used as a journalistic tool. In fact, Tinder Inc. markets itself as more than a dating app. Its community guidelines simply forbid scamming, spamming, harassment, and inappropriateness; and according to its website, Tinder “empowers users around the world to create new connections.”

One Tinder promotional video seems to encourage alternative uses. “People aren’t only using it to make great love connections,” said one Tinder employee, “they’re also finding friends and using it to network.”

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Tinder has users in more than 190 countries. Its “Passport” feature lets users meet people from almost anywhere in the world. Google Translate makes it even easier. Stuck in New York, but want to understand how a Parisian feels about French President Emmanuel Macron? Want to bolster a pitch quickly with a quote from a local? In Rome and need to find a nearby English-speaker? There’s an app for that.

Of course, journalists should apply ethical standards to their use of Tinder as they would any other platform: Be upfront about being a reporter, be aware of phishing scams, and vet your sources.

Some considerations, however, are unique to this dating app.

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A biased usership

Drop your radius in Moscow, match with English-speakers, and ask about Putin. You will soon find that—contrary to extensive polling—a surprising number of Russians seem to be critical of the authoritarian leader. You haven’t stumbled upon a conspiracy; you just aren’t getting the full story. Tinder is matching you with young, English-speaking Muscovites, a population considerably more likely to be skeptical of Putin.

At least in the US, Tinder is mostly used by young, unmarried people; men are typically more likely to swipe right; poorer people are less likely to have access to smartphones; and because of your gender, you’ll probably only have access to half the usership (users chose whose profiles they see based on sexual orientation). The list of considerations goes on, but regardless, you can’t expect the full picture. No one using the app is a truly “random” citizen.


Respect for everyone’s privacy

Dating-app-journalism has faced scrutiny before, and journalists should be especially cautious looking for sources on Tinder.  A reporter working for the Daily Beast infamously used a gay dating app, Grindr, at the 2016 Brazil Summer Olympics. The reporter was straight, only revealed he was a journalist when asked, and did not make it clear he was reporting while on the app. He ultimately wrote an article about it. As a consequence, he inadvertently outed Olympic athletes, putting some in serious danger back home.

The Daily Beast’s article had many problems; it was insensitive and ignorant. “Don’t be insensitive and ignorant” is a rule journalists can get behind; however, using Grindr uniquely threatened sources. Dating apps are treated as a quasi-private place for members of the LGBTQ community to meet one another.

Although “I am a reporter, can I have your full name?” is the last thing a closeted person wants to hear on a dating platform, the lesson from the Daily Beast is to be upfront. You may spook potential sources and make them uncomfortable, but being entirely transparent is paramount. If they don’t want to talk to you or be quoted, they don’t have to.

The initial assumption is that—even if you introduce yourself as a journalist—you are using the app for personal, romantic reasons.

For users straight and otherwise, Tinder is often a discrete place to meet people. The initial assumption is that—even if you introduce yourself as a journalist—you are using the app for personal, romantic reasons. Unlike other forms of social media, a reporter will have to make their intentions especially clear.

I’m not aware of any major publications that openly use dating apps to find sources, perhaps for this reason. Since I am a man, if I quote “Joseph Johnson, 25, a man from Tinder,” I may inadvertently out Joe. What if I quote a woman who happens to be married? Since journalists often like to say where they found a particular source, they should go the extra step in confirming a source is comfortable with a story noting they were found on Tinder. Otherwise, the app still can be very useful for interviews on background.


Personal life ethics

For the record, I have used Tinder as a dating app; but I’ve strictly separated my matches for work and my matches for dating. I’ve never interviewed or quoted someone who I’ve spoken to romantically, and vice versa.

Using Tinder for journalism introduces a slew of precarious emotions into interviews, even if you do take precautions and explain your intentions. Regardless of your own orientation, your interviewee, man or woman, may have been drawn to your profile for romantic reasons. You need to establish a hard distinction between people you may flirt with and the people you interview. When opening Tinder, you should know which hat you’re wearing.

Admittedly, the app doesn’t make that part easy. You cannot sort your matches, meaning that journalists need to be especially vigilant.


Limited information

I helped cover the Charlottesville protests with The GroundTruth Project, but before I went, I used Tinder to talk to locals. Unfortunately, I learned very little from my brief interviews. The people who weren’t involved only knew what was already in the news, and the protesters seemed to be otherwise engaged.

I was able to gain some thoughtful insight: “It’s amazing that in the old days people hid behind a hooded mask, but in the current climate there are no fears of showing their true self,” said Hasni, 51. However, in general, I learned nothing that wasn’t already being reported.

As I soon figured out, Tinder is not Twitter. You can’t expect instant updates; but for more substantive conversations before or after events like Charlottesville, it can be a useful platform.


Tinder’s unique benefits

Despite Tinder’s hassles and pitfalls, I would argue it is worthy of a journalist’s time.

Twitter and Facebook are convenient when you know who you are looking for, but privacy settings often prevent quick conversations with random people. Meanwhile, Tinder exclusively matches you with people who want to talk, meaning more insightful interviews. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Tinder requires a phone number confirmation. Although they exist, Tinder dummy accounts are rarer than their social media counterparts, meaning fewer dead ends. And as city-dwelling journalists come under heightened scrutiny for being too insular, Tinder is one avenue to extend their reach, meaning faster and more informed reporting.

Tinder is far from perfect; but it can be a useful tool as long as journalists maintain their usual ethical standards, contextualize their interviews, and are mindful of privacy concerns.

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Kevin McElwee is a software engineer based in Washington, DC. As a freelance journalist, his articles have appeared in Nautilus and Discovery, Princeton University’s research magazine. In 2017, he reported from Moscow for The GroundTruth Project.