Rehtaeh Parsons was a Canadian teen doing normal teenage stuff when she became a sexual assault victim on a fateful night in April of this year. When pictures of the sexual assault made it to social media, and fellow students began to mock her online, she took her own life. The case has gotten a lot of coverage, but not enough in our opinion – many parents are still oblivious to the extent to which cyberbullying and social media can exacerbate negative social situations for teenagers, especially harrowing ones.
This week something occurred that also should have gotten a lot more coverage. Facebook used Rehtaeh’s photo (a headshot) in an ad for an online dating company. After Facebook issued the following apology, it appears that people immediately forgot about the incident:
“This is an extremely unfortunate example of an advertiser scraping an image from the internet and using it in their ad campaign. This is a gross violation of our ad policies and we have removed the ad and permanently deleted the advertiser’s account. We apologize for any harm this caused.”
That is not a terrible apology but one has to wonder how this happened in the first place. Rehtaeh’s sisten has gone on record (on Facebook) stating that she thinks the use of her sister’s picture was a deliberate attempt to cause controversy for the advertiser. Facebook clearly is pointing the finger at the advertiser.
Facebook has been vocal about warning people that it will be using personal photos in ads, but how did this picture appear in an online dating ad? She was 17 at the time of her suicide. It’s unlikely that she “liked” or was using an online dating service. Did Facebook suggest the controversial photo to its advertiser? Did the advertiser have free choice of all the millions of personal photos on Facebook?
If photos for ads on Facebook are randomly generated from people’s profiles and timelines based on something you have “liked”, that seems within the rules as Facebook has defined them – I don’t like it but that’s life. If the advertiser independently sourced the photo, they alone are in the wrong. If Facebook or their advertisers actively pick and choose photos for shock value, that is not OK. The implications, especially for young Facebook users, are huge.
Facebook owes its users and the Parsons family a much more thorough answer.
Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring teen internet activity.