Last week, Jim* Googled the phrase “list of names on Ashley Madison.” A resident of rural Alabama, Jim had been using the infidelity dating site for three years to cheat on his wife. Now he wanted to know how much of his information was out there, floating around on the open web.
His search led him to the website for the Henry County Report, a small community newspaper that had listed the full name, e-mail and home address of every single Ashley Madison user in the state. The site was dominated by posts about the leak, topped with tabloid headlines like “cheaters revealed!” Some lists were organized by zip code, making cheating neighbors especially easy to find.
“It's disgusting that this many married men are interested in having extramarital affairs,” wrote the anonymous author of one post. “We have decided that it's in the best interest for our readers to have full access to the entire list of those individuals in our area that are reportedly paid members of the site.”
Jim's name was there.
He wasn’t worried about his wife finding out. The night before, after first confessing his extramarital extracurriculars to his priest, he’d come clean to his wife. She was angry, but willing to try and work through it.
What Jim was worried about was everyone else. The Henry County Report had essentially outed him to everyone he knew. Jim isn't anyone particularly important. He's just a regular, Southern guy. But in the small, deeply religious town where he lives, this is the sort of thing that can ruin your life.
“It was gut-wrenching,” said Jim. “It was like, ‘Are you people so cruel that you just want to hurt people?’ Not only are they hurting me, they’re hurting everyone around me. And why?”
There have been national stories about Ashley Madison’s high-profile users, like Josh Duggar, the “family values” evangelist for whom the leak revealed an unexpected double life. But along with those, bloggers and journalists in small communities are posting lists of non-famous locals who've been thrust into the news thanks to digital Scarlet Letters doled out by hackers.
Public lists of private Ashley Madison users like Jim are popping up all over the place, but especially in the nation’s Bible Belt. Slabbed, a site which describes itself as “alternative new media for the Gulf South” posted links to downloadable files of users in Louisiana and Mississippi, sorting them by zipcode. A Twitter user named @KentuckyAMleak tweeted the names of local users, tagging their employers in the tweets when possible. (The account was quickly suspended.)
The internet has turned the world into a small community, a place where anybody anywhere can be propped up in the town square and issued a sentence of public shame. But in actual small communities, shame goes viral, too. When church groups and high schools and small towns like Jim's are hyperconnected, it enables communities to dole out scarlet letters at internet speed. Imagine if Hester Prynne had lived in the moralistic America of 2015: her three hours of public humiliation would have lasted a lifetime instead, living on in comment sections and Google searches forever. Already, there have been reports of suicides in the aftermath of the attack.
While people use Ashley Madison for all kinds of reasons — in open relationships, for example, or to mentally escape abusive ones — the internet has blindly labeled any name that shows up in the leak as a cheater lacking in moral fiber.
Stories like the Ashley Madison leak make a good case for the right to be forgotten, for a need to allow people to escape their own past on the web. But that past may be impossible to escape once the data has made its way offline into the collective hive mind of small town America. The internet might be able to forget, but rural Alabama probably won't.
I reached out to the Henry County Report to ask why its authors decided to assist the hackers in spreading the leak. They didn’t respond, but reading the site, it’s easy enough to guess. These lists aren’t just a moral judgement, they’re revenge for violations of the authors' own particular moral code.
One post included nude images of a prominent local doctor and an attorney, along with a promise to soon publish the photos and “sex chat sessions” of other local men.
“We are holding back at the moment, as they need time like these two local men … to have a come to Jesus meeting with their wives,” they wrote. “Yes Wiregrass adulterers, Armageddon is officially here, and we will be updating it as more is made available."
The hackers themselves, a group operating under the name “The Impact Team” passed the same moral judgement: “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” they wrote. In this case, it turns out that hackers and neighbors are working together, pillaging private lives to trumpet an arbitrary moral code agreed upon by none.
For Jim, Ashley Madison was an “escape mechanism” at a time when he was feeling lost in life and drifting apart from his wife. He said he met four women through the site in person, and had an affair with one of them.
He and his wife will have to mend their relationship under the public scrutiny of small town gossip. That, he said, will make the healing much harder.
“I live in a rural area. Everybody knows everybody,” he said.
Like a politician forced to account for his sins, Jim is already planning how he'll address his affair in public. He'll stand up at the local church groups and confess his mistake. He will accept his neighbors' judgement of them. He will beg them to not judge his wife or family. He has no other choice.
Jim still can’t understand why anyone would publish names from the leak online.
“Yes, I’ve done something horrible,” he said. “But what I’ve done pales in comparison to what is being done to all of us.”
Then again, he said, he probably should have expected as much.
"This is the Deep South," he said. "I am just going to have to live with the stigma."
*Jim's name has been changed to protect his privacy.