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Online Trends

Published August 22nd 2016

Surviving? Ashley Madison One Year On From the Devastating Data Dump

The Brandwatch React team looks at the data behind the fall of Ashley Madison and wonders whether a brand really can survive anything.

It’s been a year since online dating service Ashley Madison was hit with one of the most publicized data breaches in internet history.

The Brandwatch React team decided to take a look at the data behind the scandal to see whether a brand hit by such tumultuous bad press could ever survive.

What happened?

The site, which openly encouraged extramarital affairs, was the target of “Impact Team” who (after a warning period in which they demanded the website be shut down) revealed the details of millions of users.

On August 18th 2015 they released just under 10GB worth of user details and the world’s media went wild as notable figures emerged as apparent patrons of the adulterous site.

Ashley Madison mentionsEven customers who had paid for a “full delete” of their profiles were embroiled in the scandal after some of their details weren’t erased at all.

Politicians, priests, military members, civil servants, celebrities and millions of other regular citizens were named and resignations, divorces and suicides followed.

It wasn’t just poor security standards the site was criticized for.

Gizmodo analyzed the data and alleged that a huge portion of the female profiles on the site were in fact “fembots” (fake female profiles set up to lure more users), with emails between staff that were leaked after the initial data dump confirming that fake profiles were being created at scale.

Infamous CEO Noel Biderman resigned in August 2015, and a second data dump featuring his emails revealed details of multiple affairs despite the fact he claimed publicly that he never cheated on his wife.

To put it lightly, it was a PR nightmare that’s not over yet. In more recent news it was revealed that parent company Avid Life Media is being investigated by the US Federal Trade Commission.

The world reacted

We found over 150k mentions of “Ashley Madison” on the day the user details emerged (that’s excluding mentions on private pages and messages). Reputations were ruined as the names of a host of high profile individuals were shared across social.

The attack was far from isolated to the tech world. Tweeters with an interest in family and parenting were out-tweeting tech lovers and there was a broad spectrum of professions. This was big news regardless of who you were.

The only major differing factor we found when looking at who was talking about the hack was gender.

Ashley Madison genderLooking at gender-categorized authors, male accounts were discussing Ashley Madison at nearly double the rate women were between May and September 2015.

Family values activist Josh Duggar became a huge part of the conversation in the initial aftermath, with Gawker’s account of the details of his membership one of the top shared links, making 27.9 million impressions on Twitter between July and August.

August 2015 was a nerve-wracking time for anyone who’s details appeared on the list.

Very personal consequences

Around the time that the public became aware that hackers had obtained access to user details there was a significant spike in searches of “Ashley Madison”, combined with an influx of people searching “divorce”.

// <![CDATA[ trends.embed.renderExploreWidget("TIMESERIES", {"comparisonItem":[{"keyword":"ashley madison","geo":"US","time":"2015-02-01 2016-02-28"},{"keyword":"divorce","geo":"US","time":"2015-02-01 2016-02-28"}],"category":0,"property":""}, {}); // ]]&gt;

Interestingly, the second spike in “ashley madison” searches, in the week clients were actually named, saw no real impact on “divorce” searches. That’s not to say being named in the data dump had no consequences, though.

Aside from public shamings so brutal they got a mention in Jon Ronson’s book on the subject, some of those named have been victims of blackmailers attempting to extort them for thousands of dollars.

You can read one incredibly sinister alleged blackmail letter here or about the now paranoid existence of one user who’s family are yet to find out about his subscription here. For some users the pressure was too much. Lives were totally ruined.

Former Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman (who has been dubbed “King of Infidelity”) has reportedly been trying to distance himself from the whole debacle, not even mentioning the site on his personal website and generally keeping a low profile. His polished site’s wholesome images and list of achievements bear little resemblance to his Google search results.

Ashley Madison noel bidermanHe’s definitely had a quiet year since he stepped down, but recent mentions are still often referring to his past position.

A “breathtaking” reboot

With a year of bad press following the devastating hack and an obvious loss of trust, how could Ashley Madison possibly expect to survive?

Well, surprise!

We’re growing up. Learn how on our blog: https://t.co/l7o6B2c5kL #findyourmoment
— Ashley Madison (@ashleymadison) August 15, 2016

The brand is “transforming” itself and a recent blog post claims that while it’ll still be a discreet dating site, “Our focus has shifted from exclusively extramarital affairs to embracing all those possible moments that might take your breath away.”

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 13.47.48Ashley Madison’s reboot comes as part of a wider re-brand as parent company Avid Life Media becomes ‘Ruby’.

Its latest TV adverts certainly take a more subtle approach than the old “Life is short. Have an affair” tagline, with the brand now opting for “Find your moment”.

This advert, in which a man displays Eeyore-levels of melancholic facial expressions until he spots a smiley woman on the subway could be part of an advert for a rom-com, and it looks like that’s what Ashley Madison is going for with their “Find Your Moment” campaign. 

The brand’s new look and message has had a fairly low-key release and we’ve not seen a huge amount of non-skeptical engagement, but perhaps low-key is exactly what Ashley Madison needs.

Just saw Ashley Madison’s advert in the break during the #Vuelta highlights. #FindYourMoment to cheat? Ugh, so depressing. ?? #AshleyMadison
— Emma Louise Layla (@emmalouiselayla) August 20, 2016

Whether Ashley Madison can recover from the hack, which will continue as part of the brand’s story for a while yet, remains to be seen.

Are you a journalist looking to cover our data? Email [email protected] for more details.

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