There aren’t many things that Ben Affleck has taught me, but one is the word “schadenfreude.” I remember reading a quote from him years ago that used this word in reference to his box office bomb Gigli, and I had to google it since I’d never heard of it.
Schadenfreude, simply defined, is pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune. The Ashley Madison hack of 2015 is sure to be a defining moment, not just of how we look at online security, technology and privacy, but it could also serve as a sociological study of schadenfreude, as thousands have flocked to the Internet to try to identify people they know who might be adulterers.
Some are calling it a modern day witch hunt, or perhaps more akin to The Scarlet Letter. Either way, it’s certainly interesting to watch it unfold… until it affects you personally.
Like millions of Americans, I first heard about the Ashley Madison hack last week and casually followed updates on Twitter. Somehow, I became clued in to the fact that someone had created a Twitter account “Kentucky Leaks” (@kentuckyamleak) that was outing Kentucky-based Ashley Madison users (mostly government employees and teachers) and that had quickly amassed more than 6,000 followers.
I didn’t learn about the Kentucky Leaks account until Thursday evening, at which time the original account had been suspended by Twitter, but as soon as one account was shut down, the next iteration would immediately pop up in its place.
Lord knows I have my flaws, and being nosy is one of them, so once I found out about them, I clicked the “follow” button on the two Kentucky Leaks Twitter accounts that were currently active.
Within minutes of doing so, my cell phone dinged to indicate a new email, and I was shocked to see that one of these accounts had tweeted at me “My name (my Twitter handle), shouldn’t you be ashamed of your AM profile?”
Until the hack, I had barely any passing knowledge of AshleyMadison.com, and had certainly never visited the site (let alone created an account), so I immediately knew something was up.
I checked out the Twitter account and after comparing it to the other Kentucky Leaks account, realized that it was a spoof account. The account had tweeted similar messages to a handful of other people, all within a short time span, and I realized that those of us being accused were all followers of this particular Twitter account.
I wasn’t sure why the person behind this account was falsely outing its own Twitter followers, but because the account was obviously a hoax, and only had a few hundred followers, I didn’t think much of it. I unfollowed the account, blocked it, submitted a report to Twitter, and went to bed.
The next morning, I checked my email and found that overnight I had amassed several new Twitter followers (all men I didn’t know) and one nasty tweet sent in response to the false Ashley Madison accusation. I blocked all of them, turned my account settings to private, and went about my day, still not thinking much about it.
The whole situation was barely a blip on my radar, until later that morning I received a text from my friend Kristin that read, “Uh…. (that is the sound of me being speechless.)Unfortunately, a nosy family member tipped me off to the Ashley Madison leak. Apparently, he was watching that stupid Kentucky Leaks feed like a hawk. Not sure what kind of damage control you’re running with, but when that’s done I’m gonna need the full scoop! And for what it’s worth, I’m pretty non-judgey on such matters.”
I was so flustered that I had to read the text twice, and my stomach felt queasy. What I thought was no big deal apparently was. My mind starting racing as I asked myself a flurry of questions. Should I be doing some sort of damage control? How do I defend myself? What fallout might there be from this? How do I explain this whole mess to my husband without looking shady?
I have two very public jobs, one in a nonprofit and the other as a college professor; both are positions were integrity and ethics are requirements of the job. Jesus, could this possibly affect my hard-earned career?!
After texting back my friend to clue her in that I was “outed” by a hoax account, I logged on to Twitter to see that the fake account was still up, although no new tweets had been sent since the night before.
I again reported the account to Twitter and reached out to one of the fellow victims, Laura. She quickly responded and confirmed that she, too, got called out immediately after following the page, and was livid but also at a loss as to what to do.
Her approach was to keep her Twitter account public in order to, in her own words, “tweet back that asshole” but that she had been up all night begging Twitter to do something about it, to no avail.
I had opted to not respond to the tweet, as doing so would have just publicized the accusation to all of my followers. Regardless of our different approaches, Lauren seemed relieved to have someone to relate to with regard to this very frustrating shared situation.
Going through something like this is kind of like the five stages of grief. First I felt shock, then fear which progressed quickly to anger and then righteous indignation.
At that point, I figured there was nothing else I could do, so I stewed. I was mad at the person who was responsible for the hoax account and tried to figure out their motivation behind the false accusations. In clicking around Twitter here and there, I realized that some people were very upset about these leaks, and were taking out their anger and frustration at the people who were following the Kentucky Leaks account.
Some Twitter vigilantes had apparently decided to go after the gawkers who were following the outings. The only thing I could figure was that someone created the fake account to falsely accuse busybodies, me being one of them, as a sort of karmic revenge. Either that, or it was just for the lulz. Whatever their reason, I seriously contemplated consulting an attorney about a libel suit.
My anger wasn’t solely directed at this anonymous tweeter, but also at Twitter itself. Laura and I had both reported the page, and individual tweets, multiple times but nothing had been done. Why were they so slow to react, especially to damaging false accusations?
Finally, I turned my ire to my friend. I went back and read her original text, which stoked a quickly building fury as I realized that she clearly thought the accusation was true.
This is a friend who I have known since second grade, so our friendship dates back roughly 30 years. Further, I’m married to my high school sweetheart, who also went to school with me and Kristen, so she knows our relationship better than most.
My husband is the only romantic partner I’ve ever had... my first and only kiss, and even the first and only boy I ever held hands with.
Kristen and I roomed together in college, at a time when my husband (then boyfriend) was off in the military, so she knows first-hand how even three years of a long-distance relationship, at a very young age, didn’t test our fidelity.
I was also bothered by the fact that she was so prone to believe this nasty accusation when it came from an anonymous Twitter account. One thing the leak has shown is that a very small percentage of Ashley Madison users are women, so even if Kristen didn’t know me well, the odds the accusation being true were pretty slim.
From an ego standpoint, I have to admit that I was also offended that someone would think that I needed Ashley Madison services. After denying the accusation to Kristin, and letting her know it came from a hoax account, I channeled my best Amy Schumer and let her know “Besides, if I wanted some strange I could walk into any random bar and catch 10 dicks. I certainly wouldn’t troll the Internet and pay for it.”
I let her know how upset I was, and pointed out that at this juncture, the real Kentucky Leaks account had even tweeted that the account that had accused me was, in fact, a fake account. She was extremely apologetic but still, I stewed.
Finally, more than 16 hours after I had reported it, Twitter suspended the fake Kentucky Leaks account. It also suspended the real one, but the next iteration was created within an hour. Now I was left to explain this situation to my husband whose response, thankfully, was “Eh, that’s annoying that you had to deal with that.”
I spent a lot of time contemplating things, and as I looked at the real outings that were still happening on the legitimate Kentucky Leaks account, it made me sad. But this time I wasn’t sad for myself. My moment of self-righteous wallowing pity had passed, and now I turned my thoughts to other people. I read the comments on Twitter, where people were positively gleeful about each outing, and clamoring for more.
Some would tweet their outrage at Twitter when the latest Kentucky Leaks page would get suspended, begging for more juicy scandal, right there at the click of a mouse. Had I not gone through my fake “outing,” would I have been one of them? Would I have been on Twitter, refreshing and anxiously anticipating the latest outing? Probably. And that makes me disappointed in myself.
With each new outing, there’s the question of whether it’s even true. Laura and I, along with the others who were falsely accused, can tell you that not everything you read is accurate. Public accusations, true or false, can ruin a person’s relationship, career and life.
Fortunately for me (and for Laura, thankfully), the fallout seems to be minimal, although I will never know who else may have seen (and shared or gossiped about) that tweet.
Cheating is despicable and inexcusable, and the Ashley Madison leak is an opportunity for those who might otherwise stay out of the fray to join the mobs who salivate at cheaters being outed.
But is everyone who signs up for an Ashley Madison account a cheater? Not necessarily. Some may be in open relationships. Others may have stupidly just been flirting with danger by perusing the site. But for those who are guilty of cheating, is it really ideal for them to be publicly outed? There are a number of reasons why public outings are wrong.
Even if you have no sympathy for them (and I get that), think of the impact of these outings on innocent people. If you were an aggrieved spouse, would you want to find out your partner is cheating via Twitter, where everyone in the world can share in your hurt and embarrassment? Would you want to find out that you dad is cheating on your mom from social media? Probably not.
If nothing else, maybe this whole episode can help teach us empathy. I know it has for me. As much as I despise cheaters, none of this is any of my damn business (political hypocrites like Josh Duggar being the exception). Public outings also bring rise to very serious concerns for the LGBT community. Lives are being ruined and the Twitterverse is eating it up.
While part of me would love to find out who’s behind the fake account that randomly lobbed a nasty false accusation at me and rip him or her to shreds, I’m trying to use this experience to grow as a person.
I accepted Kristen’s apology and I hope our friendship becomes stronger as a result of this experience. People, me included, often say they don’t care what others think of them but often we really do. I need to work on that ego thing and truly strive to be someone who has zero fucks to give as to what others think of me.
I also need to be less of a busybody. While I think I’m pretty good about not being judgmental, I do enjoy it a bit too much when someone shares the latest gossip with me.
As far as I know, the Kentucky Leaks Twitter is still going strong, but I’ve unfollowed it. Someone also texted me this weekend with a link to a fully searchable database where you can now find Ashley Madison users by name, town and username which has finally made its way to the clear web (it was just a matter of time), but I won’t be clicking.
It’s my first step in taking schadenfreude back out of my vocabulary, at least when it comes to me participating in it.