Here’s How The Ashley Madison Scandal Foreshadowed AI’s Dating Takeover

In the current year, cybersex takes on a whole new meaning.

By Andrea Mew5 min read
Pexels/Gabi Santana

The dot-com boom created – aside from its many beneficial innovations – a safe haven for many people to act out their vices in private. Reclusive folk could find friends without leaving the comfort of their own homes. Gambling addicts didn’t have to travel to their local casino to lose their life savings. And with the help of Ashley Madison, a dating site taglined “Life is short. Have an affair,” serial cheaters could rack up their body count and infidelity-curious people could dabble in digital debauchery.

Several years into the adultery platform’s heyday, hackers known as Impact Team orchestrated a data breach that exposed the millions of registered users. It wrecked marriages, and in some cases, it destroyed lives. 

But the identity of many cheaters wasn’t the only shocking element exposed in the hacking of Ashley Madison – the hackers also uncovered just how many women’s profiles were total fakes. Yes, even before AI boyfriends and girlfriends gained mainstream popularity, Ashley Madison was scamming cheaters by setting them up with counterfeit lovers. 

Maybe Next Time, He’ll Think Before He Cheats

Last year, the mini-series called The Ashley Madison Affair chronicled the historic rise and the subsequently epic fall of the dating site for affairs, but public interest in the scandal was revived when Netflix released their mini-series called Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal this year. 

The Netflix series featured interviews with several key figures from the actual company itself, like founding CEO Darren J. Morgenstern, former Vice President of Sales Evan Back, former Director of Product Amit Jethani, and former spokesmodel Michelle “Bombshell” McGee. To show the full scope of impact, they even featured the once-beloved YouTube vlogger family Sam and Nia Rader, who fell from grace after the 2015 data breach exposed Sam’s infidelity. 

After watching the full series, it was pretty clear just how depraved the whole enterprise was, but it also wasn’t hard to understand why the site became as popular as it did. Love affairs have happened all throughout recorded human history, but many cultures frown upon extramarital affairs and general infidelity. In our modern, increasingly areligious Western culture, however, interest in open relationships and general non-monogamy appears to be on the rise. 

Not being faithful to your spouse is trash behavior in and of itself, but attempting to shift public perception of cheaters is an entirely different ballgame. That was the name of the game for Ashley Madison. They promised privacy and anonymity for cheaters, but that promise wasn’t a failsafe.

The reception of the Netflix series has been a toss-up, with some saying that the focus on Sam and Nia gave audiences a cue to sympathize with cheaters. The director Toby Paton, however, thought that this focus on Sam and Nia would be relatable for a general audience, saying in an interview with Variety that “when Sam explains the reasons for his infidelities, why he was on Ashley Madison,” that he felt “there’s something quite universal in some of those issues that people find, when you’re married, you’ve got kids, you’ve got a demanding job.”

While the celebrity examples (anyone else catch the Hunter Biden reference?) and tragic suicide covered in the documentary are, of course, all distressing examples of the consequences associated with infidelity, it’s also woefully amusing how so many men were duped by literal bots. 

After the Ashley Madison database and private emails were released, investigative reporters (and frankly, the general public too) took a deep dive into the data. One reporter from Gizmodo, Annalee Newitz, reported in 2015 that Ashley Madison created over 70,000 female bots to speak to male users. The company later confirmed rumors about the bot behavior. 

Company emails revealed that the site engineers used terms such as “hosts” and “engagers” to covertly discuss their existence, like “host bot mother creates engagers,” “birth has been given! let the engager find itself a man!,” “randomizing start time so engagers don’t all pop up at the same time,” and “for every single state that has guest males, we want to have a chat engager.”

So what was going on? Many, many unfaithful males were attempting to cheat on their wives with women who never existed. Fabricated fembots may have ended many marriages, and despite this being very public, scandalous information, the phenomenon doesn’t seem to be dying down.

Plenty of Fish or Plenty of Catfishing?

In the summer of 2023, the New York Post detailed how AI catfish bots appear to be taking over dating apps – an endgame that we should have all seen coming amid the rise of artificial intelligence. In the piece, they showcased one example from a Facebook user who posted a suspicious Tinder profile that she thought was AI-generated. The man’s profile photo was a shirtless mirror selfie, his body looked as though an artist had sculpted it, and his bio read like ChatGPT – a man who was looking to “ignite sparks of laughter, wanderlust, and genuine connections.”

People discovered that this alleged 24-year-old engineer on Tinder wasn’t just using a filter on his shirtless selfie, AI likely generated the entire profile. Some of the dead giveaways included the man’s extra finger, the wonky background, and of course, that awkward caption.

When I interviewed Match’s Chief Science Advisor Dr. Helen Fisher about AI trends in the dating market, she shared with me how AI can be a blessing for those needing help describing themselves, what they’re looking for, and composing an appealing first DM. Match found that 14% of their surveyed online singles had already used AI in some capacity for dating: 43% used it to write their profile, and 37% used it to write their first message.

While digital catfishes and real people relying on tech definitely pose problems for people who are, well, looking for fully authentic human connections, some people might actually be interested in artificial love. Reportedly, Google Trends data has shown that the term “AI girlfriends” saw a 2,400% increase in search interest. The inner skeptic in me, at this point, wonders how many of those users contributing tto the the 2,400% increase are bots too. 

But I digress. Recent data points to nearly 100 million monthly visits to AI girlfriend platforms like Character AI. ChatGPT put out an official love bot called CarynAI, charging only $1 a minute for a 24/7 virtual girlfriend. There’s clearly a market for this perverted niche, and frankly, I’m concerned with how hard lonely individuals will fall prey to the scam.

We’re More Connected, Yet Chronically Lonelier Than Ever Before

Our loneliness crisis has practically reached epidemic proportions. In 2021, research suggested that over one in three Americans are lonely. And some people are saying they’re experiencing a “friendship recession.” Chronic loneliness affects members of both sexes; over half of men reportedly don’t feel satisfied by their friendship size. It may also disproportionately affect older adults, with the health consequences potentially being as grave as the effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

AI chatbots can be helpful for answering basic customer service questions, but it’s pretty dystopian to learn that 13% of the people who are chatting up AI programs are doing so just to “have a conversation with someone.” That depressing statistic is made worse by others, like how almost one in five young people are allegedly open to dating a bot. 

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but computers can’t replace human connections. Technology might be part and parcel of our lives, but no amount of cords, cables, or chips can replicate authentic humanity. 

For those of us who try to the best of our ability to digitally detox when we can – trust me, it’s tougher than it seems when your work life requires a consistent digital presence – the concept of artificial connections replacing authentic ones is concerning. As a married woman, I can’t even fathom how much dread young men and women feel when they open up their dating apps, hopeful to find their forever person, but then get conned by bots. 

These are new, constantly changing frontiers we’re facing, so there are no textbooks to teach you the best tips and tricks to fully avoid AI in online dating. However, some people have piped up on forums and blog posts about ways they personally detect AI.

“From my experiences, it's when they want to switch to a different app or website almost immediately,” wrote one user on a Reddit thread. Another voiced a similar comment, saying, “If anyone asks you to take it to Google Chat or What’s App, it’s likely a scam.”

That user continued to explain that if someone texts at odd times (like 4 a.m.) asking about how your day was and what you had for dinner, that could be a red flag. Another user said they ask to do video chats, and if the person they connected with declines, they assume it’s a bot. Furthermore – and this one should go without being said, but honestly, romance scams are sadly so common – if someone asks you for money, it’s probably a bot…or just a scummy individual looking to pick your pockets. 

Closing Thoughts

The stories shared by devastated spouses and family members, which came to light after the Ashley Madison database was hacked, revealed some revolting truths behind the controversial website. It takes a pretty stark lack of critical thinking skills to operate under the belief that, when registering for a website like that, the truth won’t come back to bite you in the butt. But, beyond that, it’s bizarre to reflect on how machine-learning software went from an embarrassing farce for the registered users to reality for the digital dating industry.

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