Facebook issued a formal apology and promised to permanently block an unnamed advertiser from posting ads on the social network after that company featured Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia teenager who committed suicide in April after being cyberbullied for a gang rape, in an advertisement for a dating website.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, Facebook said, “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 has caused.”
The advertisement, which included a photo of Parsons that was widely distributed after she was removed from life support in April, featured the heading “Find love in Canada! Meet Canadian girls and women for friendship, dating or relationships. Signup now!” and offered a link to the URL ionechat.com.
According to CBC News, the ad was first noticed by Rob Russell, who forwarded it to Parsons’ father, Glen Canning. “Immediately I thought, 'Wow, somebody must not know whose picture they’re using here,'” Russell told CBC.
In a crime that has drawn frequent comparisons to the notorious Steubenville, Ohio, case, Parsons was raped by four boys at a party in November 2011. The incident was captured a cellphone photo that was taken by one of the boys and “spread like wildfire” throughout Cole Harbour District High School. The brutal and sustained shaming she received from her peers eventually forced her to change schools and check into a psychiatric institution for a month and a half, her mother said.
“Rehtaeh was suddenly shunned by almost everyone she knew,” her mother Leah Parsons wrote in Facebook memorial page dedicated to her daughter. “The harassment was so bad she had to move out of her own community to try to start anew in Halifax.”
Little progress on the case was made during Rehtaeh’s lifetime, and investigation into the assault initially concluded without any arrests. At the time, Canadian police said they did not have sufficient evidence to proceed with charges. But in August, four months after Parsons’ death, Halifax police arrested two men in connection with the rape. Parsons' death also inspired Canada's Cyber Safety Act, a controversial law that went into effect in August.
In a blog post on his personal website, Canning wrote, “I am completely bewildered and disgusted by this. This is my daughter, Rehtaeh. They have her in an ad for meeting singles. I don’t even know what to say. “
“What a thing for a parent to see,” Canning added in an interview with a Canadian news outlet. “Especially because Rehtaeh is the victim of a sexual assault and they have her on a dating website. Not only that, she’s also a minor. What does that say?”
Although Canning agreed with Facebook that banning the company was the only logical response, he said he was determined to find out how Rehtaeh’s photograph found its way into the dating ad.
“In my heart it’s just inexcusable,” he said. “There’s just no way I would accept an excuse that this was just some kind of a glitch.”