Police are now investigating a case of cyberbullying involving an anonymous online poll ranking girls at a high school based on their looks, but legal experts say a criminal conviction is unlikely.
Lynelle Cantwell, a student at Holy Trinity High School in Torbay, N.L., received national attention and support after she took to Facebook this week to denounce the “Ugliest Girls in Grade 12” poll and its creators in a post that has been shared thousands of times.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said in an email Friday that it and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary are looking into the poll, which first appeared on the social media site ask.fm.
Police could not be reached for comment, but a Dalhousie University law professor said current federal cyberbullying laws only cover online sharing of intimate images, sometimes referred to as “revenge porn.”
“In the unfortunately fairly unpleasant world of cyberbullying, it would surprise me if this rose to level of something that was criminal,” said Wayne MacKay, who is also a cyberbullying expert.
Michael Lacy, a criminal defence lawyer and vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of Ontario, agreed with MacKay and said it might be time to update the law.
“This highlights that our criminal code hasn’t yet caught up to the technological age,” he said.
“I really think it’s time for the federal government to step up and look at things like this and see if it crosses over into the criminal sphere.”
MacKay and Lacy said while this might not fit the criminal definition of cyberbullying, police could consider charges for criminal harassment – though that’s a charge that generally requires the victim to fear for their livelihood.
Both experts agreed any sanctions arising from the incident would most likely be decided by the school.
A school board representative said via email that the poll is contrary to the school board’s social media policy and the actions of the creators are unacceptable.
“It is possible that school disciplinary action could result from a student’s actions on social media,” said Ken Morrissey.
Ask.fm has been connected to cyberbullying in the past. British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a boycott of the site in 2013 after it was linked to the suicide of a 14-year-old girl.
“One of the challenges for any social site is creating expectations about how users treat each other and then how to manage when things aren’t going well,” said Marsali Hancock, president and CEO of iKeepSafe.org, an organization that tracks global trends and issues surrounding digitally-connected products and their effect on children.
Ask.com bought the site in 2014 with the goal of turning it away from the history of cyberbullying.
In February, the site launched a “Safety Center” to give site users the tools and guidelines to enhance safety and combat cyberbullying.
“Ask.fm is not a place for abuse or hate and we take cyberbullying very seriously,” the company said in an email statement sent Friday evening.
Ask.fm said it recently “dramatically increased” its global moderation team to ensure inappropriate content is identified as quickly as possible.
However, Ask.fm noted the poll in question was linked to from ask.fm, but not created on it.
“Like many social networks, we do allow the posting of external HTML links and we rely on users to report links they feel violate our terms to help us quickly remove offensive content,” the company said in its statement.
Hancock, who is also a member of ask.fm’s safety advisory board, said developers made a “substantial investment” to help combat bad online behaviour.
She said sometimes potentially harmful posts can stay on the site because the individual words aren’t necessarily harmful.
“Particularly when you have language that might not cross the threshold of child pornography or human exploitation, sometimes it’s harder to find some of the nuances.”