Facebook mystery: How did Rehtaeh Parsons image end up on dating ad?

An image of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Canadian teen who committed suicide in April, appeared in an ad on Facebook for a dating website. Facebook responded quickly, but questions remain.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP/File
Several hundred people attend a community vigil to remember Rehtaeh Parsons at Victoria Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia in April. The girl’s photo appeared in a Facebook ad this week.

Facebook issued an apology for using in an online dating ad the image of a Canadian teenager who committed suicide last spring after what her parents describe as cyberbullying.

A picture of Rehtaeh Parsons appeared in a Facebook "Sponsored Ad" for Ionechat.com, an online dating website, on Tuesday evening.

The ad said “Find Love in Canada! Meet Canadian girls and women for friendship, dating or relationships. Sign up now!” according to a screenshot of the image that appeared yesterday on Twitter.

Facebook said the ad was a “gross violation” of the company’s policies, and it has been removed.

“It’s our image. It belongs to Rehtaeh’s family. Just to lift it off and start using it like that is very thoughtless,” said Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, in a Wednesday phone interview with the Canadian news publication, thestar.com.

Facebook has since banned Ionechat.com from its website. Lonechat.com’s website could not be accessed after repeated attempts Wednesday morning.

“I think banning the Ionechat.com company was the right move to make,” said Mr. Canning. “It’s hard to say what can be done, but I think Facebook removed it fast, and I appreciate that, and they apologized for it, which is good.”

Facebook has previously been confronted with legal action for its advertising methods. A different Facebook advertising campaign, “Sponsored Stories,” incorporates users’ “likes” into advertisements. A lawsuit earlier this summer caused the company to rewrite part of their privacy policy to make users aware that some of their information might be used in advertising, and to give users the opportunity to opt out of being featured in ads. Facebook also paid approximately 614,000 users $15 each for using their information for advertising purposes as part of the settlement agreement.

However, it remains unclear how Rehtaeh’s image appeared in the “Sponsored Ads” section, which is separate from “Sponsored Stories.” The Sponsored Ads rely on Facebook’s user data to better hone in ads for users.

After a users’ death, relatives can decide what to do with the deceased’s account: They can either memorialize the account or remove the account from the site.  It is unclear how Rehtaeh’s parents handled their daughter’s account after her death, or how her information would still have been in circulation for use in advertising, especially for a dating site.  

The advertisement appeared on Andrew Ennals’s Facebook account, and something odd struck him about the picture featured in the right side bar. Mr. Ennals, a Toronto-based copywriter, googled the name “Rehtaeh Parsons,” and confirmed that the ad did, in fact, feature an old image of Parsons.  

Ennals then tweeted what he had found: “Supreme bad taste: a dating site’s Facebook ad is using a picture of Rehteah Parsons,” including a screenshot of the advertisement.

Mike Shaver, a Facebook representative tweeted back at Ennals’s post within the hour, and the company promptly removed the ad.

Rehtaeh died in April, several days after she attempted suicide. Her parents say their daughter was the target of cyberbullying after an alleged sexual assault in November 2011. A picture of the incident was circulated to Rehtaeh’s friends and classmates via mobile phone and computers. 

The circumstances surrounding Rehtaeh’s death, and the increased incidences of cyberbullying have prompted an increase in the discussion in both Canada and the United States about how to prevent such behavior.

Two 18-year-olds have been arrested and charged with child pornography offenses in connection with Rehtaeh’s alleged sexual assault in Nova Scotia. They will be tried as minors, since they were under 18 at the time of the crime. They are expected to enter pleas on Thursday according to the BBC.

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