Current Problems

Media and Reconciliation (84-86)

‘You don’t know how much it hurts’: Online trolls use murdered Alberta First Nations woman’s image to harass her family on Facebook

February 26, 2023

Tootsie Tuccaro with a photo of her daughter Amber. The 20-year-old disappeared in 2010 after hitchhiking with a man in a rural area, south of Edmonton. Her remains were found two years later.

Toronto Star: For more than a decade, Tootsie Tuccaro and her family have been fighting to find her daughter Amber’s killer — but recently that fight has taken a turn into the sometimes dark world of social media.

Tuccaro has had to battle online trolls and impersonators who make fake Facebook profiles with Amber’s photo and send her racist and taunting messages about her murder. “I don’t know what their thought process is in doing that. But it’s someone who’s real spiteful, real hateful. You don’t know how much it hurts, over and over,” Tuccaro said. “And now they’re using my baby’s picture for a Facebook profile?”

Amber, a 20-year-old mother of one from the Mikisew Cree First Nation in northern Alberta, disappeared in 2010 after hitchhiking with a man in a rural area, south of Edmonton, near the airport. Her remains were found by horseback riders two years later not far from where she disappeared.

Earlier this week, Tuccaro came across a fake Facebook profile using Amber’s photo. She reported the account to Facebook, but it was still up as of Thursday. She has reported accounts impersonating Amber before and she’s been left frustrated by the response. Facebook removed the account, which existed since at least April, after the Star reached out to the company about their policy on fake profiles and included a link to the page.

In a statement, Facebook said “We do not allow impersonation on our platforms and have removed the account,” for violating their community standards for account integrity and authentic identity. They added they block “millions” of fake accounts every day at registration using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The case highlights the endless agony that comes with losing a loved one to homicide, but also the struggle people face in getting big tech companies to help them when they’ve been hacked, impersonated or harassed online. For Tuccaro, coming across a fake profile of her daughter is more than just an inconvenience. It made her burst into tears and brought back all the anguish of knowing her daughter’s killer has never been found — which she believes might not be the case if the investigation into Amber’s murder was conducted differently. “Since I saw it, I haven’t slept yet,” Tuccaro said. “It’s really messed me up.”

Amber’s case received significant attention, partly due to an audio recording that police released of a telephone call from the evening of her disappearance where Amber can be heard fearfully asking a man where they’re going; the man responds they’re driving into the city. The man’s voice has never been identified and that encounter is believed to have been the last time Amber was seen alive.

Police put Amber’s photo on billboards in the Edmonton area, along with a link to the phone recording, and urged people to reach out if they recognized the man’s voice. Tuccaro said they’ve received around 1,600 tips over the years. None of them have led to an arrest. On March 16, the family will hold a press conference in Edmonton and say they will reveal new information about the case.

In 2019, Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki publicly apologized to the family for an investigation he described as “not our best work”.

A report into the RCMP’s investigation found Amber was removed from a national missing persons database in response to an erroneous report that she was found, that RCMP members accidentally destroyed a suitcase that contained her belonging’s three months after she disappeared and that the force failed to ensure the investigation was thorough, supervised and monitored.

The high-profile nature of the case, but also the family’s continued advocacy through their Justice For Amber Alyssa Tuccaro Facebook page, has garnered them a large following. Tuccaro hears from a lot of other families who have lost loved ones, and also frequently receives messages from people claiming they recognize the man’s voice as their father or uncle.

But she also receives racist messages mocking the cause of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, or people blaming Amber for her own murder.

One time, she opened Facebook Messenger and saw that someone had sent her a photo. It was of a large green tool box that said “Guess who’s in here?” She genuinely thought it could be Amber’s killer. “I tried to message him back, but he was gone,” Tuccaro said. “Now I don’t trust anybody. There’s too much bulls–t all the time.”

There is “limited” ability to compel Facebook to remove the image, said Brett Caraway, a professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in internet, copyright and intellectual property law. “If the photo of Amber used in the campaign to raise awareness about her murder was originally posted to Facebook by her, she granted the platform a non-exclusive licence to the image. In other words, Facebook can use it in a variety of ways. However, that licence does not extend to other Facebook users,” he said in an email to the Star.

At the very least, the fake account would run afoul of Facebook’s community standards, which states that “authenticity helps create a community where people are accountable to each other,” Caraway noted. But generally, social media companies in Canada and the U.S. are not legally liable for what their users post.

Identity fraud is usually thought of in the context of someone impersonating another individual to gain access to their bank account or another scheme to make money. But there is also another law that criminalizes impersonating someone to harass, bully or somehow harm another individual, Caraway said. “While both are criminal offences, they might be hard to prove in this case. It might be possible to show harm to Amber’s family, but the intent of the impersonator is also a factor,” he said.

“The fact that this case involves a deceased individual is particularly disturbing. Unfortunately, it is not all that surprising,” he added. For Tuccaro, dealing with the online trolls while also continually advocating for her daughter is exhausting. But she said what keeps her going is Amber’s 13-year-old son Jacob, who was 14 months old when she went missing.

He now refers to Tuccaro as mama. “For me my strength is Jacob,” she said. “Because if I didn’t have Jacob I don’t know where or what I would be right now.”

He insisted on joining the family when they come to Edmonton next month for a press conference. “He said mama I just wanna be there for you. And I said mama will be OK, you’re not taking care of mama — it’s my job to take care of you. So I just have to keep saying that.”