Culture

The Ashley Madison Hack Is Already Leading To All Sorts Of Awful Consequences

We're not as morally superior to online "cheaters" as we like to think.

The hacking of infidelity hookup site Ashley Madison last month raised some pretty knotty questions about the ethics of online vigilantism, digital privacy and the damage that can be done by collective moral outrage. The seemingly seedy nature of the site and the prospect of millions of “cheaters” being exposed dovetailed nicely with the internet’s love of seeing unfaithful people getting caught or sabotaged by their wronged partners, especially on film.

Earlier today the still-unknown hackers made good on their threat of a month earlier and dumped information about the site’s 37 million users online, including email addresses and credit card details. On cue, plenty of media outlets trawled through the data to find a sellable angle; American sites have already identified at least one celebrity whose email is registered on the site, while closer to home lists of Australian public officials who use the service are already doing the rounds.

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But the schadenfreude many people have expressed at the prospect of Ashley Madison users getting their comeuppance is running up against some very nasty real-world consequences. On Nova this morning, talk-show hosts Fitzy & Wippa asked people to call in if they suspected their partners were having an affair, before revealing to a female caller that her husband was a user of the site live on-air. When the clearly distraught woman abruptly hung up, the hosts had a belated attack of conscience amid the dawning realisation that having a radio slot and an obnoxious nickname might not qualify someone to ruin people’s marriages on national radio.

That’s become a story in itself; news sites like the Daily Telegraph have taken aim at Fitzy & Wippa even as they themselves continue to talk up the Ashley Madison hack more broadly. Apparently, capitalising on dubious moral indignation for eyeballs doesn’t disqualify media outlets from criticising opponents for doing virtually the same thing.

And it’s not just relationships that the data dump has threatened. Nearly a month ago, a panicked post on Reddit — seemingly from a gay man in Saudi Arabia who’d used Ashley Madison while in America — begged readers to stop the hack, claiming the Saudi government would torture and execute him if they found out he was gay.

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It’s not clear whether or not the post is genuine; the nature of the man’s situation, if real, would make it extremely difficult to verify. But it’s a sobering reminder that our oddly puritanical addiction to scandal and self-righteousness can have catastrophic consequences in real people’s lives. It’s extraordinarily easy to forget that the juicy takedowns of “cheaters” that do so well online have real people and a tremendous amount of pain and complexity at their core.

Toying with those experiences the way we do, it may be worth asking ourselves if we’re as morally superior to our human targets as we like to think.