Users of the dating platform Ashley Madison probably aren’t sleeping too well these days: After it has become clear a month ago that the website has been compromised, the attackers have published part of the stolen data. Almost 30 Gigabyte of data are freely available to those who know where to look. There are names, addresses, transaction data and other compromising data contained in the files.
Calling Ashley Madison a dating platform probably only makes sense in context. The portal has been making the rounds with the slogan Life is short. Have an affair. for years. Those who use the service that makes cheating on significant others as easy as possible are probably angering those who value fidelity as a precious thing. And a German proverb says Wer den Schaden hat, braucht bekanntlich für den Spott nicht zu sorgen, which translates He who’s got the damage doesn’t have to wait long for the laughter. Therefore, it’s not surprising that media houses around the world are enthusiastically jumping on the illegally published data of complete strangers. Only to then raise to moral high ground and condemn those who have used the service for whatever reason.
Such is the case of US TV personality Josh Duggar, whose paid membership at Ashley Madison is apparently a very welcome fact for the HollywoodReporter. Swiss local papers are also very keen on getting their hands on data and filter out Swiss users. With success, thus far. They’re admittedly looking for interesting names such as Christoph Mörgeli or Fabian Molina.
Of course, one could argue that it is the task of a media house to guard societal norms and to point fingers at infarctions against those, but this argument loses any and all credibility it may have had if you look at who the ones guarding the moral high ground are. Switzerland’s most read newspaper for commuters has only a few years ago been proud to publish an interview with Ashley Madison’s European boss and has often featured the dating site in subsequent years without as much as a line of critique.
The opportunistic nature of the media aside, the reaction to the leak is gleefulness. If you want to cheat on your partner, so agree the commenters on pretty much every article, you have to expect to face dire consequences. This is reminiscent of Selfiegate where a number of pictures of celebrities that they took in private settings without intention of ever publishing them were leaked. The ensuing victim blaming is without compare to this day. It was only after actress Jennifer Lawrence’s direct and defiant comments to the overwhelming consensus of It’s your own fault! You should have seen it coming, countering by calling the leak a sex crime, that the discussion took a different turn.
The case Ashley Madison is different, but still the same: Data that is being analysed happily here is actually private data of thousands of people. Data that was never intended to be made public. The hubris to analyse this data on the basis of moral high ground and shaming those who are caught speaks volumes about those that point fingers at people.
You can think of cheaters whatever you want. Fact is that the current way of dealing with occurrences such as these lead to public shaming. The contrast is enormous: Where in a private setting, a husband or a wife is being caught in the act in a hotel room, which should lead to at least a fight and at most a divorce, the culprit is being recognized by the public in case of Ashley Madison: Friends know, family knows, the boss knows. People who do wrong according to a significant number of people are being marginalized and publically shamed and end up being verbally or even physically abused.
The public and the media are judge, jury and executioner and the punishment itself is draconic. It wouldn’t be surprising if suicide would appear as a long-term consequence of the Ashley Madison hack. Looking at it from a distance, the reporting in the news as of late reminds of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which a cheating wife is being put on display in puritanical New England during the later years of the 17th century. A comparison that isn’t exactly praise for modern journalism in 2015.
Generally, every person in our world needs to ask if the current witch hunt, going after people who are only suspected of infidelity, is as relevant as the title pages of media would want us to believe. After all, we live in an age where pornography makes up a considerable volume of internet traffic and where polyamorous relationships aren’t even news.
It is vital that media and experts discuss ethics regarding the use of such data. Reporting on a massive data breach is legitimate. Ruining strangers’ lives based on the assumption of guilt, however, is not.
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