Nicola O’Brien is the Lead Coordinator of the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition. SMACC was set up in 2020 by the Asia for Animal Coalition to address the rise in animal cruelty content being shared on social media. SMACC is made up of 19 animal protection organisations who share a common goal: to see animal cruelty content prohibited on all social media platforms. Nicola shares tips below on how we can all identify animal cruelty content on social media, and what action we can take when we do.
Across social media platforms you are never too far from a video showing an animal. Maybe you like an account your friend created for their dog, showing their daily antics. Maybe you follow a wildlife rescue centre and support their work to protect endangered wildlife.
Shockingly, amongst this positive animal content lies content showing abuse to animals, sometimes unintentional, sometimes very intentional. Social media animal cruelty content has become a huge problem in recent years, with more content appearing and social media platforms not doing enough to remove it.
Some of this cruelty content, in which animals are victims of extreme violence and torture, is easy to identify. This content, in theory at least, should be easy to spot and to have removed from the platforms, as most of the major social media platforms have policies preventing violent animal abuse content. (Frustratingly much of this content is not being caught by the platforms. SMACC is working with some platforms to address this).
A bigger challenge for animal advocates is content that appears positive but that actually shows suffering. When watching a one-minute video it can be hard to tell if an animal might be suffering if all appears well. The psychological harms inflicted on animals are not always obvious to see but these can be just as severe as physical abuse.
Sometimes the cruelty isn’t spotted as the viewers simply do not understand that what they are seeing is an animal suffering. They may not know about the needs of the animals or misinterpret their behaviours. This becomes compounded the more such content is shared, and this treatment of animals becomes normalised.
In 2009, a video showing a pygmy slow loris being kept as a pet went viral, gathering millions of views and thousands of comments. The video showed the loris being “tickled” as the loris held their arms in the air. Viewers thought the reaction was “cute” but sadly what they were really seeing was the loris performing a defensive behaviour, in response to feeling threatened. Not only was this an animal welfare issue, but also a conservation one, as pygmy slow lorises are an endangered species. Worryingly, many who had commented on the video expressed a desire to own a slow loris as a pet, sparking fears it could increase their demand in the pet trade.
Most social media platforms do not specifically cover content such as this in their policies, so it is even more important for viewers to be aware and take action.
How to spot animal cruelty
Here are some types of cruelty content commonly found on social media and some key things to look out for to help you identify them. You can use these prompts when viewing any form of animal content, to ensure you are only viewing content that does not harm animals.
Wild Animals As Pets
The depiction of wild animals kept as pets makes up the vast majority of cruelty content that SMACC finds on social media.
Just like the social media account for your friend’s dog as mentioned above, SMACC is increasingly finding accounts set up for wild and exotic animals kept as pets. This content can be especially dangerous as often the way the animals are treated is completely inappropriate for the species shown, which have specific social, environmental and emotional needs. This may be intentional or may come from the ignorance of the animals ‘owner’. This type of content is popular and sadly normalises the mistreatment of animals.
Key things to look out for when you find such content:
- Wild animals should ideally always be living in their wild environment. If being kept captive, is there a good reason?
- Are they being kept in species-appropriate conditions? Are they having their social, dietary and behavioural needs met? Some species may be nocturnal but are kept awake during the day to meet the needs of their owner, which negatively impacts their welfare.
- Is the animal being made to act in ways unnatural to them? It is never okay to dress wild animals up in clothes for the entertainment of others.
- Can the animal leave the situation safely?
- Does the animal seem to engage in strange behaviours such as pacing or rocking, indicating they are in distress? This is especially true of primate species kept as pets, such as macaques.
There is a growing trend of videos that show macaque babies kept as pets, dressed in human clothing, bottle fed and treated like human babies. Creators are setting up accounts dedicated to this content and turning them into a regular source of entertainment for viewers. Primates are trained to perform human-like behaviours such as walking on their hind legs, something completely unnatural to most non-human primates.
Content showing animals being rescued from danger are also incredibly popular on social media. Everyone loves a happy ending for an animal in need! Unfortunately this interest is exploited by creators, often in an attempt to make money.
Fake rescue content shows animals deliberately put in harmful situations specifically so that the content creator can “rescue” the animal from that situation. Fake rescue content can also involve animals who are injured – for example with broken limbs or stuck in glue, oil or traps, or animals in life-threatening situations such as being stuck in bodies of water or trapped under large objects.
Sometimes these videos are presented as prey animals being rescued from predator species. Often the animals placed together would be very unlikely to meet in the wild – for example, kittens being attacked by a boa constrictor.
Sometimes these accounts will claim to be animal rescues and ask for donations, usually via a paypal link.
Key things to look out for when you find such content:
- Is it an unusual situation? Would the animal likely be in that situation or environment?
- Does the person filming stand for a long time simply filming the animal in danger before any attempt at rescue?
- Does the account sharing the video have many similar videos? Often accounts creating fake rescues will have many of these videos which appear to be filmed in the same place, sometimes with the same animals. You may also find that the “rescuer” is the same person every time.
- Is there any additional information on what happens to the animals after the rescue? Are they a legitimate rescue with a website and more information?
At SMACC, our key message is to use critical thinking when viewing animal content. Take a step back and actively think about the situation you are viewing, the experience of the animals involved and the person behind the camera.
What to do if you find animal cruelty content.
Regardless of what type of cruelty you find on social media, the best actions to take are always the same. Follow these five steps and you can play a role in ending this form of animal cruelty.
1. Be aware
By reading this blog you are making a good start! The more you know about animals, the more easily you can spot problematic content on social media. SMACC has created a series of videos named “Ask Yourself” which gives helpful tips on how to spot different forms of animal content (no graphic images used).
2. Do not watch
It is really, really important not to intentionally watch the videos. The more views content receives the wider its reach on social media, spreading the cruelty content to more people. Look for clues in the video title, the post itself and any comments from other viewers before pressing play.
3. Do not engage
Whatever you do, no matter how outraged you feel at seeing animal cruelty, do not engage with the content. Any form of engagement, positive or negative, feeds the algorithms on social media platforms and leads to the content being boosted to even more people.
4. Do not share
Just as above, sharing the content increases its reach so do not share!
5. Report it!
Reporting the video is still the best tool available to tackle animal cruelty content. Each platform has its own reporting function, and SMACC have created some short videos showing step-by-step how to report on some of the biggest platforms.
Reporting may seem like a small act and you may not see the video removed immediately, but from our conversations with the platforms, we know it is incredibly important. What’s more, your report will be a crucial one amongst many which will eventually lead to the content being removed – so do not give up!
You can also report the link to SMACC via our easy online form: REPORT A CONCERN | SMACC (smaccoalition.com)
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