Fusion.net published the story, titled "Scared, dead, relieved: How the Ashley Madison hack changed its victims’ lives," on Wednesday (December 9). Fusion is a multi-platform media company that is a joint venture between ABC Television Group, the Walt Disney Company, and Univision Communications. Launched in 2013, it includes standard television distribution, along with Web and mobile platforms.
Reporter Kristen V. Brown, who has been covering the AM hack since the story broke in August, focuses primarily on the personal repercussions for those whose names appear on lists that have been published at various Web sites.
For a perspective about news coverage on the story, Brown turns to our blog. We've published roughly a dozen posts on the Ashley Madison story, focusing mostly on our recent home bases of Alabama and Missouri. We broke the stories that Alabama AM participants include Bradley Arant lawyer (and son-in-law of former governor Bob Riley) Rob Campbell, al.com reporter Charles J. "Chuck" Dean, and former U.S. Congressman Artur Davis.
We plan many more AM posts, based on our research that shows prominent, highly paid professionals and executives are among the most frequent users of the site--at least in Alabama and Missouri.
Brown interviewed me last Friday and asked mainly about my motivations for covering the story. I told her that I have a bachelor's degree in journalism (B.J., 1978, University of Missouri), with more than 30 years of professional experience in the field, and I consider this an important story on multiple levels. It's a technology story, a privacy (or lack of privacy) story, a psychology story, a sociology story, a religion story, and (perhaps of most importance to me) a class story.
|Kristen V. Brown|
Roger Shuler, a Missouri blogger, used his site, Legal Schnauzer, to out a prominent attorney and a local journalist in his former home state of Alabama, as well as the names of local companies who had executives with names on the list.
“It’s of interest to the public,” he told me, assuring me he would never print the name of “just some guy who runs an auto parts store.”
While people use Ashley Madison for all kinds of reasons—in open relationships, for example, or to mentally escape abusive ones—Shuler had a hard time accepting that people might use the site for any reason other than a lack of moral character.
“I’ve been married for 26 years and I treat marriage seriously,” he said. “I’m just amazed that in this country where people seem to trumpet their Christian values we treat christian marriage so shabbily. A lot of people on the Alabama list are people who make judgments about us all the time, so it’s relevant to expose what kind of judgement they use themselves.”
Brown notes that the story has grown particularly firm legs in the supposedly conservative South--and my interest grew because the Alabama list includes numerous immediately recognizable names. My guess is that the most prominent names self-identify as "pro family" Republicans. Writes Brown:
In the U.S., at least, the worst of the fallout seemed to happen in the south, where small community websites and blogs published the names of locals who used the site. Sometimes they were organized by zip code, making cheating neighbors especially easy to find. In Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, conservative Southern politics, religion and the nature of close-knit rural culture turned the internet into a small-town pillory.
In Hartselle, Alabama, Mayor Don Hall was forced to resign despite denying ever having used the site. The names of many public officials (like President Barack Obama, for one) appeared in the leak even though they weren’t users, because Ashley Madison didn’t require that users verify e-mail addresses before creating an account.
Brown provides important perspective on the fallout:
Among the rubble of the Ashley Madison hack, I’ve counted at least three suicides, two toppled family values evangelists, one ousted small-town mayor, a disgraced state prosecutor and countless stories of extortion and divorce. The blast radius of a database dump, it seems, is very large indeed. . . .
Tom*, a 65-year-old user in Nebraska told me that he paid off blackmailers after receiving one of the many e-mails threatening to out users to their spouse.
An East Coast woman who had found her husband in the leak and considered divorcing him said that the hack ultimately helped repair a long-widening chasm in their marriage that neither of them had addressed. He told her he signed up before they got married and never bought the credits necessary to send messages to women, a claim I was able to help her verify in looking at his transaction records.
One person I talked to found their father in the hack, affirming long-held suspicions that he was a cheater. Another user said that after contemplating suicide, he decided to come clean to his wife, and that she forgave him. Yet another, who has lost 13 pounds since the hack due to stress, was now hopeful after his wife agreed to marriage counseling.
Other suspected post-hack outcomes, like the Pentagon cracking down on members of the military who used the site given adultery being a crime, never materialized. But, unlike the leak itself, most of the aftermath unfolded behind closed bedroom doors. Its full effect is difficult to discern.
I agree with Brown on that. One question that has gone unanswered: Why has Ashley Madison, and its tag line "Life is short, have an affair," been so attractive to upper-class, mostly white, professional men?
One might think that such individuals would be too savvy or busy to get involved with a shady outfit like Ashley Madison. (The site's whole purpose is to perpetuate cheating, so why should customers be surprised when the company cheats them by failing to protect their data?) You also might think that, with more assets than the average person to lose in a divorce, the well-to-do would be uber careful about getting involved.
But our research indicates that is not the case. And we think that story needs to be told.
Is it possible that quite a few people who help run major companies and institutions have more money and power than common sense? Is it possible they have too much time on their hands? If they are willing to cheat on their spouses, and possibly heap embarrassment on their children, how are they likely to treat customers?
We will examine all of those questions, and more, in upcoming posts.