At Cannes Lions Festival, Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Opens Up About Gun Controversy

Of the many hot-button issues polarizing the country these days, gun control is among the most divisive. Even as mass shootings, including countless school shootings, continue to increase in frequency, gun rights activists push back against any attempted efforts at gun control. While Congress may not be willing to act, many major brands are. In the wake of yet another school shooting—this one at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.—the women-centric dating app, Bumble, joined the fray by announcing that photos of guns will no longer be allowed. During a recent panel discussion at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Bumble founder and CEO, Whitney Wolfe, opened up about the experience.

On February 14, 2018, a student at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., opened fire on classmates and others. By the time the shooting was over, the young man had killed 17 people and had injured 17 others. The shooting was just the latest in what seems to be a never-ending stream of such occurrences. As usual, it caused gun rights advocates, including the NRA, to become even more defensive about the Second Amendment and their right to bear arms. Others decried the latest round of violence, insisting that new laws must be passed to protect people.

While Congress seems incapable of acting on the topic of gun violence, many companies and brands have taken stances of their own. Bumble is therefore not alone in taking steps in response to the shooting in Parkland, and banning photos of guns is just one of the ways in which the brand is trying to help. Shortly after the shooting, the company also made a $100,000 donation in support of March for Our Lives, a nationwide gun protest that was originally organized by high school students.

Although Whitney Wolfe knew that banning photos of guns from the app would be controversial, she also felt that it was the right thing to do. Many people immediately wondered how the app would even make that happen, but the company had a plan in place right away. Just as things like nudity and hate speech can be flagged and reported, photos of guns can be too. To handle the new policy, Bumble brought more than 5,000 new volunteer moderators on board; they will work around the clock to remove gun-related content from user profiles and other communications. In this way, as Whitney Wolfe has stated, the company hopes to continue to offer a “kindler, more accountable” online space.

Given the animosity that exists across the country regarding gun control and gun violence, it comes as no surprise that Whitney Wolfe and Bumble were subject to harassment and even threats in the wake of the move to ban photos of guns from the app. As the founder and CEO explained during a panel discussion at Cannes Lions, the company even had to enlist the help of local police. They were stationed outside of the company’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, in the days following the official announcement regarding the new policy. Wolfe acknowledged that the move was polarizing; as she stated at the panel, “If you’re pushing the limit on something, you’re going to piss someone off.”

Even with in Bumble itself, the move stirred up controversy among some employees. This is surprising given the company’s core values. At the same time, though, Wolfe has also stated that Bumble’s decision also received an outpouring of support—especially among registered users. Right after the new policy was announced, the app saw a 95-percent increase in activity among female users along with a 3,000-percent increase in the reporting of photos that violate Bumble policies.

The fact that Whitney Wolfe chose to open up about the controversial move at Cannes Lions reflects her ongoing commitment to championing the safety of female users of her innovative dating app. It was also an ideal platform for doing so because so many influential people attend the event, which has been held every year since the late 1940s. It takes place at the Palais des Festivales et des Congres in Cannes over the course of seven days. During that time, more than 40,000 entries vie for awards across four ceremonies. The most innovative thinkers in media, advertising, tech, the performing arts and finance converge to honor one another. Celebrities show up every year; in 2018, the list included Shaquille O’Neal and Conan O’Brien.

To understand why Whitney Wolfe and Bumble’s decision to ban photos of guns, it helps to understand the core values that are at the heart of the innovative dating app. Wolfe, a Salt Lake City native and graduate of Southern Methodist University, came up with the idea of a dating app where women make the first move shortly after leaving another popular dating app Tinder, where she had served as cofounder and VP of marketing. When Andrey Andreev, the founder of European dating site Badoo, approached her about developing a new app, she was more than ready.

Bumble immediately resonated with women around the world. In the first month after its December 2014 debut, it was downloaded more than 100,000 times. Today, the site boasts more than 30 million registered users, and it has been experiencing 70-percent year-over-year growth. As noted by Wolfe, the brand’s core values—empowerment, equality, accountability and kindness—don’t align with the use of weapons like guns. In fact, guns often play a role in domestic violence against women, so it makes sense for a women-centric app like Bumble to keep them off of the site.

Even with the new policy, certain users will be permitted to display images of guns on their profiles; the difference is that these photos can’t be gratuitous in nature. Rather, if someone can demonstrate that they have served in the military or that they use guns strictly for sport, the app might make an exception. As for whether the move will negatively impact the success of the app, Whitney Wolfe is unlikely to be concerned. The move might anger some, but the app is now so well-established and popular that it is certain to endure.

Follow Whitney Wolfe on Twitter or LinkedIn for more information.

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