Christi Gibson is a minister who enjoys traveling to places like Africa and China. She loves to sing and teach. She has friends around the world and is a self proclaimed cat lady.
She’s also a widow who lost her husband John not long after hackers released the names of 36 million people who’d signed up for Ashley Madison — a site that marketed itself as a way for people to have affairs anonymously. Her husband’s name was on the list, which she learned the day she walked in and found him dead. He had ended his life.
In 2015, hackers calling themselves the “Impact Team” released the data of millions of cheaters — or potential cheaters — who were on Ashley Madison. It was one of the most personal data sets in history. Names and addresses were mixed with sexual desires. The online embodiments of “what if” were released for anyone to see.
The list was distributed, categorized, published. It became searchable. There was a voyeurism associated with the list and who was on it.
Gibson and her two children represent the human impact of one of the most personal hacks in history.
John Gibson had been a pastor and seminary professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. According to his wife, he was known for his sense of humor and his ability to make people laugh. One of his favorite pastimes was fixing cars, and he loved spending time with his children, Trey and Callie.
John also dealt with depression. In a note left behind for his wife, he chronicled his struggle and apologized profusely for being on Ashley Madison.
“It wasn’t the hack that destroyed the lives that we had, it was the presence of things like Ashley Madison…The ability to lead a totally double life,” Christi said. “That’s what took our life down — the secrecy. The hack is what blew it all apart.”
Weeks after her husband’s death in 2015, Christi agreed to tell her story publicly, worried that other families would suffer the same fate.
“These were real people, with real families and real pain. It’s not funny. It’s not a source for salacious gossip,” she said, with her two children by her side.
In that interview, she made a promise to her family — no more secrets.
Over a year after her husband’s death, I met her again, this time in City Park in New Orleans, where oak trees stretch over picturesque walkways. Her family spent many weekends there before John’s death. Her son recently took his engagement photos under the trees.
“No matter what my circumstances are, or how long they last, these oaks are over 300 years old,” she said. “I look at that blue sky through those dark branches, and know that there is hope beyond my circumstances, and there’s even growth in my circumstances.”
Life after the hack has been full of change. Gibson found that the second year was harder than the first.
“The shock has worn off, the need to take care of all the details of losing a loved one, and [becoming] the primary breadwinner of your household, having to deal with all that,” she said.
They’ve moved homes three times. Her son graduated from college. He met the girl he’s going to marry. Her daughter turned 27.
She misses her husband most in the mornings. He would start making coffee after his run.
“We would sit and talk through our day, talk through our life,” she recalled. “When I would talk about stresses of the day, he would really just listen.”
For his children, it’s the new moments where he’s missed the most.
“Looking at planning our wedding, and then looking at our marriage, he is never going to be part of any of that stuff,” Trey said. For Callie, her father’s absence hits her at friends’ weddings.
“I’ve had several of my friends from childhood get married,” she said. “I was watching them do their father-daughter dance, and it wasn’t something that I had thought about before.”
When hackers released the data, they left a message: “Learn your lesson and make amends. Embarrassing now, but you’ll get over it.” A year and a half later, Gibson’s children have a different take.
“If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in all this, it’s that the decision to be on Ashley Madison was not the entirety of my father’s life,” Trey said. “I think if the hackers saw themselves as doing justice, I would say it is a very incomplete form of justice.”
Pastor David Crosby, who knew Gibson well, said it’s harder to forgive his friend’s suicide than it would have been to forgive his transgressions.
“It’s so final,” he said. “It feels like a comment on life itself.”
In a world where the internet breeds anonymity and secret forums allow us to express the best and worst of human behavior, Crosby says the list touches everyone in one way or another.
“We’re not all tempted in the same way, but we all have our temptations and the places in our life that trip us up,” he said. “We stumble, we fall, we hurt ourselves, we hurt the people that we love…that’s just a common story.”
And while infidelity is nothing new, Ashley Madison was unique in its ability to understand human nature and capitalize on it.
“There are very few people in the world who just walk around and say, ‘I’m a liar. I’m a cheater. I’m a bad person,'” said Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience and business at Northwestern University. “We all find a way to convolute the world and tell ourselves a story that makes us seem honest.”
According to Cerf, who has studied cheating, Ashley Madison marketed to this. Their slogans made cheating seem normal — like lots of people were doing it. One ad, which has since been removed, featured dozens of men singing a catchy song. The lyrics: “I’m looking for someone other than my wife.” Each time the lyric is repeated, more men appear on camera singing the same song.
Cerf said the company also used data to understand when people are at their weakest and more likely to make morally questionable decisions. Data shows a higher percentage of people cheat when away on business. So if you were browsing from a different zip code, Ashley Madison might assume you were on a business trip and show you an ad, according to Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke who said Ashley Madison executives told him about their process.
Ashley Madison did not respond to a request for comment on how it targeted users.
Ariely and Cerf both studied Ashley Madison and the science of cheating. It’s well-known that Google and Facebook allow companies to target users based on specific characteristics. Ashley Madison was no different.
“[Companies] focus on making you buy more Coca Cola and Cap’n Crunch, but the same knowledge can be used for anything,” Cerf said.
Sarah Maxwell, who worked for Cougar Life, another site owned by Ashley Madison’s then-parent company, Avid Life Media, said the company targeted people psychologically. (Avid Life is now Ruby Corp.)
“They had this whole way of testing which ads were working,” she said. “There’s a whole profile to see who would be interested in cheating, and at what time of day they’d be interested in cheating.”
Maxwell was sent to a small office to work next to Ashley Madison employees in Cyprus — which, according to leaked documents, was a legal shelter for the company.
She said employees at the Cyprus office were tasked with creating “fake” profiles to lure men.
“They would take somebody’s picture and maybe take a snippet of the profile, whether it was an existing one or had been in the past, and make these profiles,” she said. “Then they would start sending out messages to men, because the whole business model was that men would pay and women could use it for free.”
Despite the hack, the company is still growing. Ashley Madison grew from 39 million users in August 2015 to 50 million users in January 2017, according to a company spokesperson.
The company also rebranded itself as a place for open minded and discreet relationships to thrive. It used to tout, “Life is Short, Have an Affair.” But the new slogan, “Find your moment,” explicitly doesn’t reference the thrill of a secret liaison.
But nearly two years after their world was destroyed by the Ashley Madison hackers, Christi and her children say they’ve kept their vow of no more secrets.
Christi doesn’t deny that her husband was on a site for people wanting to cheat. It wouldn’t have been easy, she says, but his death gave her a somber perspective.
“We were trapped by the secrecy, and the hack — by bringing it out into the open — brought us out of that prison,” she said. “I would love to be living that freedom with John. I think it could have brought him freedom as well.”
Produced by Erica Fink, Laurie Segall, Jason Farkas, Justine Quart, Roxy Hunt, Tony Castle, AK Hottman, Benjamin Garst, Haldane McFall, Gabriel Gomez, BFD Productions, Jack Regan, Cullen Daly.
Article edited by Aimee Rawlins.
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