Toronto police are investigating a Twitter account that purported to expose the sexual behaviour of high school students — a fate that some of its 1,500 teenage followers believe the victims "deserve."
The account was recently suspended after concerned teens flagged it to the Toronto District School Board, the city's Catholic school board and the police.
"There's an investigation underway and we're looking into reports of harassment online," Mark Pugash, the director of
corporate communications for the Toronto police, told The Canadian Press.
"Whenever we do this we simply ask that if anyone feels that they've been a victim to contact us."
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The Canadian Press is not naming the account because in a cached version — a snapshot of the web page — names of minors linked to alleged sexual activities are still visible.
The feed — laced with sexual slurs — appears to have targeted both girls and boys, posting their pictures and sometimes names and schools. Students from various schools, mostly in Toronto, were targeted, according to various teens who had interacted with the feed.
No one who returned messages from The Canadian Press knew who was behind the feed, but one teen said the account used to claim that it gathered stories of the targeted people from various contributors.
Another said the creator had posted that he wanted to warn his "bros" about the "hoes" because he had been tricked by them too many times.
Posts that are visible in the cached version accuse the teens of sexual acts with 12 year olds, having anal sex, or giving someone oral sex in a school washroom.
"It is NOT cyber bullying," the account tweeted earlier this week. "It is the TRUTH."
Twitter users alerted the authorities about the feed felt immediate Internet wrath from some of the account's followers. They were accused of "snitching" or being a "rat."
A 15-year-old student called the "degrading" account to the attention of both the public and Catholic school boards in Toronto last week, after he worried that some of the girls named might harm themselves.
"They're basically shaming these girls for doing sexual acts & publicly humiliating them," he said in Twitter messages. He has heard that one girl from his school who was named on the feed was crying at school and has lost friends.
"She's a good person and a smart student, but just because she had sex they all looked down at her like she doesn't deserve their respect," he said.
"I understand that at our age we shouldn't be having sex but just because one of us do, it shouldn't change the views of them...I spoke up because I feel that women should have equal social rights in society."
The account's supporters seem unconcerned about potential real-life consequences for those named on the feed.
A student at a Catholic high school in Toronto who said she thinks the account is funny because it exposes arrogant "hoes," concedes that it's bullying — "kinda."
She knows some of the girls who were named on the feed, but doesn't care how it affected them in real life.
"Personally some people just deserve it, yes it is wrong & bullying kinda, but half of those girls in there have done worst to other people," she told The Canadian Press through Twitter messaging.
"I also kinda feel bad in a sense because I wouldn't want it to be one of my close friends even if it's not true."
Another 15-year-old student said he knows some of the people who were named, and made it clear he does not like them and believes they had it coming.
"Most of them deserved to be exposed so people know to watch out from them," he said in a series of messages.
One high school student said she knows three girls who were named by the feed, but said she doesn't know how they reacted.
"There's nothing to really explain lol it was just funny at the moment," she said of the account. "Just the way he said certain things and stuff lol."
'Impersonal on a screen'
A cyberbullying expert says bullying is now happening in a forum that kids are very technologically adept at using even though they may not be ready for it psychologically.
"There's something about the nature of the medium that makes it...easy just to laugh because it's so impersonal on a screen, on a mobile," said Faye Mishna, a professor and dean of the University of Toronto's social work faculty. "It's easier to go along with it. Also, you're not seeing the person you're hurting."
More education is needed, she said, but society also needs to look at the messages it sends. Girls are pressured to be sexy, but if they're deemed to have crossed a line, they're branded sluts, she said.
Carla Pereira, a spokeswoman for the Peel District School Board, said that while they have had to deal with so-called hate accounts before, they were nothing like the one being investigated by Toronto police.
"I've not seen anything that graphic...on the spectrum of mean tweets that would be extreme," Pereira said.
At least two other accounts with similar names — both have been suspended — also came to the attention of the Toronto police, who used its official Twitter account to send the accounts' creators a message.
"You are about to be under criminal investigation 7/8 We suggest you delete all sexual remarks and photos of female victims now," the police tweeted.
Rehtaeh Parsons case
The police investigation comes at a time when law enforcement and governments are directing more attention toward cyberbullying. In Nova Scotia, a unique cyberbullying law was drafted after the death of a 17-year-old girl, who was taken off life-support last April after a suicide attempt.
Her family says Rehtaeh Parsons was subjected to months of bullying, much of it online, after a digital photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted in November 2011 was passed around her school.
And a 15-year-old girl in B.C. — Amanda Todd — took her life in 2012 following months of harassment at school and online over images of her body posted on the Internet.
The federal government has launched a television and Internet advertising campaign to raise awareness about cyberbullying and the looming legal consequences of using intimate images to torment people online.
A bill introduced late last year in Ottawa would make it illegal to distribute "intimate images" without the consent of the person depicted. The legislation would also give courts the power to seize computers, cellphones and other devices used in an offence, and help victims recoup part of the cost of removing the images from the