“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben, in Spiderman
So if you, like me, have been somewhat queasy about rush to dig up salacious materials on anyone quasi-famous in the wake of the Ashley Madison hack, well, good news: Gizmodo has pulled off a really nice piece of data analysis that both flags what a strong public interest angle in the stolen data is as well as shown how creative thinking about data journalism can yield smart stories.
It certainly didn’t look like it for a while. True, there was a quick hit early on that exposed family values champion Josh Duggar as a paid-up member of the site, which purports to help people cheat on their spouses. Chalk one up for the public interest.
But there weren’t a lot of other similar examples. As Columbia Journalism Review noted in a good piece about the many issues surrounding diving into the data, which had been hacked and then posted online:
it’s clear that reporting on the private data of millions of ordinary Americans that has been stolen by unknown hackers raises serious ethical questions. Reporters are digging through people’s personal email addresses, home addresses, physical descriptions, and preferences, sexual or otherwise.
“We’re looking at these hacks like forces of nature. These are crimes, not tornados,” (Monica Guzman, vice-chair of ethics at the Society of Professional Journalists) says. “Somebody made that happen. We should know who they are.”
As the piece points out, it’s not clear how reliable the data is, there’s no evidence any one actually cheated on their spouse, and even if there was, it’s hard to see what the public interest in publishing that is. Not to mention the broader questions about using stolen information. (True, journalists use leaked or stolen information with some regularity, such as from whistle-blowers; but there are reasonable questions to ask about what kind of thefts, leaks and hacks we are as profession ought to be encouraging.)
So the Gizmodo piece comes as a real breath of fresh air, and act of creative journalism.
Rather than dig into who might be on the site, Annalee Newitz examined the data for patterns to try and figure out how many of the female profiles on Ashley Madison were real. In a nice, step-by-step piece, she comes to the conclusion that around 12,000 – at most – of the millions of women allegedly on the site were actual human beings.
This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, 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.
Her analysis is a good one – and I encourage you to read it – going through patterns in email and IP addresses, activity on emails and chat, and people who had paid to have their data deleted. It was a smart, sideways look at a mountain of data that came, basically, to the opposite conclusion that most other journalists were looking for: Instead of evidence that people were cheating on their spouses, the evidence is that it was pretty damn hard to find any real, live people to cheat with.
…we’re left with data that suggests Ashley Madison is a site where tens of millions of men write mail, chat, and spend money for women who aren’t there.
Nice work: Creative, intelligent – and well in the public interest.