Ashley Madison, faithfulness & the new vigilantism

If you read the news you will most likely have heard the name Ashley Madison. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the name of a website that arranged for people to commit adultery, their motto “Life is short, have an affair.”

The internet has made it easier than ever to arrange an illicit rendezvous and around 30 million people worldwide had signed up to Ashley Madison. Adultery has become good business.

In July of this year an activist group of hackers, called The Impact Team, hacked into Ashley Madison and collected/stole the details of all its customers. The hackers then threatened to publish them if Ashley Madison wasn’t shut down.

Less than a month later, and with Ashley Madison still online, the hackers went good on their promise and published the personal details of some 33 million people. Unsurprisingly the majority of users, 28 million men (80%) while 5 million women (14%) had signed up. If you’re wondering about the other 6% they declined to comment on gender. You can also see which cities has the highest number of accounts.

Wired claimed that within hours the data leak was already ruining lives. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, the ruin of lives was being exposed. As the BBC reported, this was going to end marriages and ruin reputations.

Then came the inevitable class-action lawsuit for £400 million in damages for any Canadian user affected by the breach. Ashley Madison had charged a fee for personal data to be ‘forgotten’, which is much harder than you would think to do.

While the fallout is only just beginning so is the commentary. This story has lots to teach us about our culture.

Firstly, the very obvious, but no less critical for being obvious, is the fact that our culture has a problem with faithfulness.

As Mark Jones says,

Just as you can’t have peace without holiness (Heb. 12:14), you also can’t have love without faithfulness. The world wants peace, but the world doesn’t want holiness. The world wants love. But judging by “Ashley Madison”, the world certainly doesn’t want faithfulness, either. As a result, the world doesn’t really want the love that really matters: a faithful love, built on the foundation of a faithful, loving God.

Of course, there are many ways that faithfulness has been downgraded – not least as secondary to our personal fulfilment. This BBC article illustrates the marriages and families that are destroyed when a partner declares themself as gay. The point being that faithfulness to vows, to promises counts little when stacked up against personal need or desire. As Carl Trueman presciently observed early this year, that in contemporary society, freedom is a sexual ponzi scheme.

A vision of personhood and freedom reduced to a series of sexual encounters designed to stave off boredom represents a somewhat childish and vacuous philosophy of life.

The second clear lesson is that the internet is not nearly as private as many think, as Tim Challies says,

One of the great deceptions of the Internet is that it allows us to think there are two parts to us, the part who exists in real-time and space, and the part who exists in cyberspace. But events like this ought to make us realize that when you go online you display and expose who and what you really are. And who you really are will eventually find you out.

Most people still haven’t grasped the phenomenal wealth of information that websites have about you – there is really no such thing as privacy. As Tim Challies points out,

Primarily, it brought awareness to the fact that search engines know you better than you may like. Actually, they probably know you better than you know yourself in some ways. You tend to forget what you have searched for in the past; they don’t.

Thirdly, less obviously but just as important, is our reactions to the news. Liam Thatcher does an excellent job calling us out for our judgement and our enjoyment. As an aside, you should also read this piece by Ian Paul on casting judgement.

Fourthly, Liam also succeeds in pointing out that much of the news and commentary is an exercise is ‘darkness management.’

But here’s the thing that has struck me most of all. Many of the articles I’ve read conclude with one question… one point of application:

how can you find out if your data is safe?’

Long pieces on data protection, our right to privacy, and what steps people can take to cover their backs. And that saddens me most of all, because it fails to address the biggest question and the greatest need. It’s an exercise in darkness management.

What the 47 million users and the countless other halves need most of all is not more tools to keep misdeeds hidden in ill-lit corners. They need tools to bring them into the light.

I want to see articles that conclude with “how to” guides for broaching the difficult conversation; for initiating the confession. I want to see step-by-step advice for how to be honest and remorseful. I want guides for the wronged party on how to love, grieve, forgive and rebuild trust. I want to see guidance for parents who have to explain the situation to children and teenagers. I want to see tips for how friends, couples and communities can help others process their shame and guilt and rescue their marriages.

We don’t need any more tools for darkness management. As a species we’ve had thousands of years of practice at that and we’ve got pretty good at it. We need help on how to come into the light.

Fifthly, there is the rise of a new kind of activism – a new savvy vigilantism. From Wikileaks, to Edward Snowden, to the sting videos of the Centre for Medical Progress to The Impact Team – there are now ways than ever for what has been done in shadow to be brought out into the glaring bright lights of constant media exposure.

Doug Wilson makes a defense for the ethics of righteous video sting operations and I wonder if he would try to make a case in The Ashley Madison affair, which clearly did involve a breaking of the current law by the hackers. Quite whether we need to even try to justify their actions, I’m not so sure, instead it reminds me of how God would raise up a nation to judge a nation, even if the instrument of his judgement was no more righteous than the last.

Whatever the case, this new vigilantism is making life uncomfortable for those that prefer the shadows whether it be governments, abortionists or adulterers.

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