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Who are the people men using the Ashley Madison website?

We know there are a couple of hundred bankers. And there have been reports of men connected with certain reality TV shows who may have used the site, notably the right-wing Christian moralizer Josh Duggar. The Defense Department is investigating to determine whether any service personnel – identified by email addresses ending with .mil and .gov domains – have actually used the site to arrange for extramarital affairs, which would be a violation of military conduct standards.

So who are the women?

In many and perhaps nearly all cases, they’re bots.


Annalee Newitz of technology website Gizmodo analyzed the Ashley Madison dataset, looking into IP addresses of accounts and comparing data fields of profiles to find the actual number behind the rumors that a very large percentage of the reported accounts were fake. She discovered that only about 12,000 – out of 5.5 million accounts marked as female – were actually real.

“…It’s like a science-fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly designed robots,” she writes. “When you look at the evidence, it’s hard to deny that the overwhelming majority of men using Ashley Madison weren’t having affairs. They were paying for a fantasy.”

In order to attract and retain men, the site needed to have an active base of women – or rather, to appear to have an active base of women. It’s only when looking at specific fields in the backend that sophisticated users could see that the vast majority of accounts ostensibly belonging to women were fake.

Apparently, however, Ashley Madison, while getting worldwide attention due to both the hack and its racy mission, is far from alone in its fraud. Niche dating sites and those that market explicitly to an “adult” audience need a pool of women in order to get paying customers; in many cases, men. But attracting women is hard, especially if the site appears to be “full of desperate, oversexed, uninhibited dudes” as Caitlin Dewey in The Washington Post put it. Even before signing up, many women are put off by either the marketing or by unsettling fears; once they do sign up, creepy men often drive them away.

So these companies either concoct fake profiles themselves or outsource the work to others, often in Eastern Europe. Two industry insiders confirmed to the Post that big hookup sites “make money by BS-ing everything,” said David Evans, a consultant who has worked with Ashley Madison in the past.

Ashley Madison’s own terms of service page doesn’t mention fake profiles explicitly, notes Newitz, but does stipulate that many profiles are intended for “amusement only” and that “some” people aren’t necessarily using the site to meet people offline.

Charles J. Orlando, a relationship expert with a number of books and media appearances to his name, tried to find out why women would look for men on Ashley Madison. He didn’t get an opportunity to meet in person with any of them until after he chatted with 33 different women, calling it “arm’s-length cheating…akin to an interactive romance or erotic novel.” While he doesn’t investigate – or even mention – the likelihood that any number of these women could be “fake,” it’s certainly possible.

Two years ago, a former employee of Ashley Madison threatened to go public with allegations of sexual harassment against an executive of its parent company, Avid Life Media. According to emails released by the hack, the woman, Louise Van der Velde, was ready to talk about how the company “simply rip[s] people off” since there are “really no women” on the site.

Another employee, Doriana Silva, alleged in a lawsuit that she suffered repetitive stress injuries because the company wanted her to create 1,000 fake profiles in three weeks.

Although the company’s CEO, Noel Biderman, has said that site membership is 70 percent male, he has claimed gender parity for thirty-somethings – numbers that are now being called into question.

Photo: A photo illustration shows the privacy policy of the Ashley Madison website seen behind a smartphone running the Ashley Madison app in Toronto, August 20, 2015. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch) 

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