TAMPA, Fla. - A 22-year-old University of South Florida student found herself on the wrong end of a social media frenzy involving a teenager with the same name who made headlines for suing her parents.
When Florida's Rachel Canning checked her Instagram account Monday night, she had 200 pending "follow" requests.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that commenters confused the student with an 18-year-old New Jersey teen whose claims were denied Tuesday by a judge.
Rachel Canning says people also left profanity-laced comments on a Facebook page she used to campaign for homecoming queen.
"At first, I thought, 'What the heck?'" Canning said. "I was more disturbed at the online bullying going on. Regardless, this girl's only 18. I couldn't believe there were full-grown adults that spend their day not only stalking this girl but sending bullying messages. ... I've never been on the receiving end of anything like this."
She said her personal Facebook page has strict privacy settings and drew little attention because she includes her middle name. Before this week, the old homecoming page typically got about three views a day. But her last post, which explained that she was not Rachel Canning of New Jersey, was seen by more than 10,000 users.
When some people realized the mistaken identity, they wrote follow-up posts, apologizing to Canning.
At the suggestion of one friendly commenter, Canning decided to turn the negative into a positive. She posted a link to the page for the advocacy group, Autism Speaks. She will participate in a walk next month for her 19-year-old brother, Thomas, who is autistic. By late Wednesday, she'd reached 90 percent of her $150 goal.
Canning is financing her college education through Florida's Bright Futures scholarships, her salary from working in USF's Student Government and financial help from her parents.
She views the New Jersey lawsuit as a family matter that went viral. "It sounds like one of those high school struggles that the family should handle at a personal level," she said.
Canning's mother said she finds it ironic that people confused her daughter with the New Jersey teen.
"I'm not commenting on somebody else's Rachel, but I think it's hilarious that people that think it's my Rachel," said Mary Canning. "She's like the nicest daughter on the planet ... I'm lucky she's my kid."
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.