Just how stupid are we?
That question was answered this week when PC Magazine's Angela Moscaritolo reported on the state of affairs at Ashley Madison. You may remember that Ashley Madison, the infamous extramarital affair site based in Canada, had millions of members when its account data were hacked this summer. The management of the site now claims that hundreds of thousands of new users have signed up – despite the very public breach that led to the outing of numerous politicians and celebrities as would-be adulterers. At least two suicides have been linked to the dump of Ashley Madison's stolen account data online. The company lost its CEO over the breach, major questions were raised about whether the site was truly safeguarding user data (or deleting data that was supposed to be erased), and a much more disturbing deception was revealed: The site was using fake female accounts to string along its male users and keep them paying their membership fees.
"At the time of the breach this August, Ashley Madison claimed to have around 39 million users," writes Moscaritolo. "Now, a counter on the Ashley Madison homepage shows that the site has more than 43 million members. Ashley Madison parent company Avid Life Media declined to comment about the user uptick when contacted by PCMag.com. ... Just weeks after the breach, however, Avid Life Media said people were still signing up for the site in droves."
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Whether the site's counter can be trusted remains to be seen. This may be a ploy, not unlike a restaurant owner directing his employees to park out front to create the illusion of customers after a temporary shut down by the health department. People are very easily influenced by groupthink. If the site has millions of users – the very reason for including such a counter on the site – then this will entice other joiners who believe it must therefore be desirable (or useful, or safe). Would Ashley Madison deliberately inflate its membership numbers to create the perception of success? Given the allegations already made about its "fembot con," this could certainly be the case.
"The developers at Ashley Madison created their first artificial woman sometime in early 2002," writes Gizmodo's Annalee Newitz. "Her nickname was Sensuous Kitten, and she is listed as the tenth member of Ashley Madison in the company's leaked user database. ... Sensuous Kitten was the vanguard of a robot army. As [Newitz previously reported], Ashley Madison created tens of thousands of fembots to lure men into paying for credits on the 'have an affair' site. When men signed up for a free account, they would immediately be shown profiles of what internal documents call 'Angels,' or fake women whose details and photos had been batch-generated using specially designed software. To bring the fake women to life, the company's developers also created software bots to animate these Angels, sending email and chat messages on their behalf."
The scam is as simple as it is devious. The male members of the site cannot (or will not) compare notes. Initial reports following the Ashley Madison hack indicated the site had almost no active female members. That means that most of the men on the site could not possibly have been successful in having an affair. Yet because they weren't communicating with each other, each man no doubt assumed that he was the unique case. He probably thought other members of the site were having more success, but if he just stuck it out, he could eventually find someone to accommodate him. To help keep him turning over the content of his wallet every month, Ashley Madison's artificial women made him believe there were not only attractive female members looking to connect with him (potentially), but further enticed him by making him pay for access to contacts and messages from these fake women. The fees for message credits could easily amount to hundreds of dollars ... and all to talk to automated accounts.
"An analysis of company emails, coupled with evidence from Ashley Madison source code, reveals that company executives were in a constant battle to hide the truth," reports Newitz. "In emails to disgruntled members of the site, and even the California attorney general, they shaded the truth about how the bots fit into their business plan." Some members got suspicious when they paid to read messages from women contacting them, only to discover the messages all said the same thing. Even more suspiciously, different "women" contacting the same man all logged in at roughly the same times each day. The scam was obvious, but Ashley Madison's empire was built on it. There's no persuasive evidence this has changed despite the revelations from the August hacking incident – at least, not if the site is gaining millions of members. As for Ashley Madison, its stock response to complaints of fembots chatting up its paying members seems to have been that these were for "market research."
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"It seems that everybody at Ashley Madison knew the company barely attracted any real women to the site," Newitz concludes. "The company was aiming for 11 percent real women in any given area. But apparently, it rarely achieved that goal. … What you see on social media isn't always what it seems. Your friends may be bots, and you could be sharing your most intimate fantasies with hundreds of lines of PHP code."
Whether Ashley Madison's membership numbers are real or inflated doesn't matter. The fact that the company continues to exist is itself a testament to our stupidity as human beings. It's bad enough that adultery sites, sites explicitly built to facilitate the violation of marriage vows, attract millions of husbands willing to cheat on their wives. It's even worse when revelations of widespread fraud and fakery don't cause such a site immediate financial ruin. The truth of Ashley Madison's success or failure remains to be seen, but if there are still men out there dumb enough to sign up for such a site, they will be getting exactly what they deserve.
Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].