You’d be hard pressed to find a sadder story of life in the digital age.
The picture of a Canadian girl who committed suicide earlier this year after a horrific cyberbullying incident was used in a singles’ advertisement shown on Facebook. Facebook has apologized and the firm responsible for the ad says it was a mistake, but the gruesome story of pain and suffering is a reminder of how many things can go wrong online.
Rehtaeh Parsons, and her family, has suffered enough. In November 2011, the then 15-year-old Nova Scotia teen was allegedly gang-by men who photographed the attack. The images circulated, which led to unbearable harassment, and after 17 months, Parsons hung herself at her home. She died later of injuries suffered during the attempt.
The incident attracted worldwide attention, in part because Parson’s father, Glen Canning, wrote several heart-wrenching blog posts about his daughter — (they are graphic but sometimes, it’s important to witness reality.)
Parson’s mother recently appeared on Dr. Phil earlier this month to share Rehtaeh’s story.
It’s easy to imagine that appearance has something to do with Rehtaeh’s picture ending up on a personal ad, but there’s no way to know. Earlier this week, Glen Canning received an e-mail from someone who’s seen the ad.
“Find love in Canada!” the ad said. “Meet Canadian girls for friendship, dating or relationships. Signup now!” The girl’s picture was featured.
Glen Canning reacted by writing a blog post he titled “Possibly the worst Facebook ad ever.”
“I am completely bewildered and disgusted by this,” he wrote. “This is my daughter, Rehtaeh. They have her in an ad for meeting singles. I dont even know what to say.” He posted a picture of the ad.
Facebook apologized and blamed the incident on a third-party firm which it says scraped the image off the Internet, as anyone could. It banned the firm which it says was responsible.
The Canadian Global News said it reached a web administrator associated with the ad on Tuesday night, who told them the image was picked randomly off the Google images.
There are many celebrated cases of personal photos being misappropriated for horrible uses. Several years ago, I chronicles the story of Laura, whose personal ad photo was pilfered by various porn website creators, and the horrible things that happened to her, in “Her picture became a porn ad.” More recently, I wrote of Noam Galai, whose self-portrait has become an icon used by revolutionaries and graffiti artists all around the world.
And then there was the celebrated story of a Cheryl Smith, whose image was used in a personal ad shown to her husband on Facebook. Incidents like that should give pause to any entity, like Facebook, that says it has the right to use others photographs without express permission.
There is no sure-fire way to stop image misappropriation, other than to avoid cameras everywhere. I have a friend — a diplomat tries to do just that. She never leaves a party before grabbing friends’ cameras and deleting every image of herself.
But that’s not realistic. The toxic combination of digital imagery and the global Internet means we live in a world of unintended consequences. The image of Rehtaeh Parsons that found its way onto Facebook this week is a perfectly normal picture of a young girl. It would have been impossible to predict what kind of pain it could cause.
Words can only feebly hint at the suffering her parents continue to experience. There’s no useful lesson to learn from this horrible incident, which matters so much only because of an incident that is infinitely more horrible. But it is another moment to recognize that playing with the Internet, and privacy, is playing with fire. Photos are forever.