Animal rights

Asia for Animals: speakers urge social media companies to toughen their stance on animal cruelty content

Tackling the global problem of animal cruelty content on social media was a main focus on the second day of the 2023 Asia for Animals conference held in Kuching on the island of Borneo.

Four speakers took part in a Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC) panel discussion: the SMACC lead coordinator for the Asia for Animals Coalition, Nicola O’Brien, who moderated the session; SMACC coordinator Lauren Arnaud James; Anbarasi Boopal from the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES); and Connie Chiang from the Taiwan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

O’Brien (pictured left) said the twenty organisations that were members of the SMACC had one shared goal, which was to see animal cruelty content prohibited across social media platforms.

“It’s impossible for SMACC to put a final figure on the amount of content that’s out there, but we do know that it is worldwide, and that it has been viewed billions and billions of times. It truly is a global problem,” O’Brien said.

She said a wide range of animals, both wild and domesticated, featured in cruelty content, in captive and free-ranging settings, but all of the content showed some form of detrimental interaction with animals.

Sometimes, O’Brien said, the cruelty was really obvious to the viewer, but this wasn’t always the case; many people wouldn’t recognise the animal’s suffering.

The SMACC and its member organisations urge people not to engage with the cruelty content, even when they want to be critical of it and raise awareness. Their message is don’t engage, just report.

“Even animal lovers and well-meaning people are engaging with this content,” O’Brien said. When animal advocates engage with the content, they are inadvertently boosting it, she says.

Arnaud James (pictured left) added: “When we look at how social media works, it’s a numbers game, so the most popular content is boosted by the platform’s algorithm and is seen by more and more people. And this popularity is based on engagement. Sadly, the algorithm doesn’t differentiate between positive or negative engagement.”

Even if an animal advocate gives a thumbs down, or posts an angry face emoji, or even a comment that links to an animal welfare website, that engagement will lead to the post being boosted, Arnaud James points out.

“And that means that the content is spread and it can become monetised, which means that the content creators and the animal abusers can get financial rewards from this,” she said.

“Do not share these videos even to raise awareness. If these videos had no reach, there would be no incentive to film them in the first place. Always report these videos to the platforms.”

Arnaud James said the SMACC had found 1,200 links of content showing macaques being kept as pets and those links had more than 12 billion views. The entire animal cruelty content on social media had engendered hundreds of billions of views, she said.

The SMACC defines animal cruelty as “a range of human behaviours performed intentionally, or even unintentionally, that cause animals harm or suffering, which may be immediate or long term, physical or psychological”.

Animal cruelty content, Arnaud James explained, is any film that is posted on social media by a platform, an individual, or an organisation or business that depicts animal cruelty or suffering for any reason, apart from valid campaigning, educational, or journalistic purposes.

“Cruelty content has no discernible meaningful purpose and we consider it to be a really barbaric form of entertainment,” she said.

The animal cruelty content that exists on social media ranges from images and film of hunting and animals being used for entertainment to videos of bestiality and animals being tortured and eaten alive.

Chiang (pictured left) said the social media companies were not doing enough. “It’s very frustrating how social media companies right now continue to lag far behind animal welfare science when it comes to appropriately regulating this harmful content towards animals on their own platforms,” she said. “All in all, we can say enforcement right now is still quite poor.”

Although many of the biggest platforms did now have some policy regulating harm against animals, most of them only focused on the physical abuse aspect and this abuse had to be very clearly visible in the video itself, Chiang added.

In other situations, such as content showing injuries or stress responses or an animal being kept in improper conditions, this would most likely not be covered under the physical harm category.

The policies tended to be very limited in their scope, Chiang said. They didn’t clearly define what animal cruelty was. Crucial considerations such as long-term psychological harm or unintentional abuse wouldn’t be covered.

“Sometimes, when we do reach out to these social media companies, oftentimes the responses we do get are contradictory to their own policies,” Chiang said.

Also, on many of the platforms you couldn’t choose animal cruelty as an option to report content, she added.

Chiang said the SMACC had documented multiple Facebook accounts and groups where monkey torture content had been shared.

“This form of content shows the most severe forms of animal abuse that you’ll ever see, including the killing of macaques, and they have not been removed by Meta,” she said.

O’Brien urged people to continue to report cruelty content. The reporting tool wasn’t perfect, she said, but it was still the main tool the public currently had.

“We know from our conversations with the platforms that it is really important that we still do this because they are looking at the reports; it does go to their moderation teams,” O’Brien told delegates.

“It might help us flag content to them consistently that is animal cruelty but might not be captured yet by their policies.”

O’Brien said the SMACC’s analysis of its data (based on the links it has collected and reported to the platforms) showed that about 47% of the animal cruelty content was eventually removed.

“We’re hoping that there is some sort of shift there, but it [the percentage of content removed] is not high enough,” she said.

“Unfortunately, on some platforms, it can take days, weeks, or months before it’s finally removed. And it might even take multiple reports. So we have to be persistent.”

The panelists highlighted the increasing prevalence of videos of fake rescues that were often posted along with requests for donations. Some of the creators of animal cruelty content imitate genuine animal protection organisations in an attempt to legitimise their content.

Boopal (pictured left) said that sometimes the videos depicted injured, ill, or even dying animals, “presumably put in that state by the creator in order to film themselves rescuing animals”.

She told delegates: “Content that’s depicting fake rescue of animals is getting very popular and catches out many animal lovers who think that it’s actually genuine.”

Arnaud James added: “There are some people who create fake rescue content where they put animals in distressing situations to pretend to rescue them, and some of them can look like legitimate rescue organisations.

“It’s really important to not engage in any way with that sort of content and to not comment on these videos, regardless of your intentions. Each comment or engagement helps boost the content and make it more visible and popular.”

The SMACC has created a series of ‘Ask yourself’ videos that are on its website and are directed at members of the public. They show people how to identify different kinds of animal cruelty.

Some platforms, including Meta and YouTube, had taken a positive step to introduce specific policies prohibiting fake animal rescue content, Chiang said, and implementation of these policies appeared to have reduced certain forms of fake rescue.

“Before, we would see a lot of animals being put in situations where they would be attacked by predator species, but now the content is kind of changing. We’ve realised that content creators are now developing new forms of fake rescue content in order to evade detection and moderation by these platforms,” Chiang told delegates.

Now, Chiang said, much of the content showed injured animals who might need medical treatment and the harm was probably caused by the content creators themselves in order to obtain views and interactions.

“This is a perfect example of why we believe that policy needs to be continuously refined and modified,” she added.

The sale of endangered long-tailed macaques isn’t allowed on Facebook, but depiction of the animals being kept as pets or dressed in human clothing isn’t prohibited, Chiang points out. If content doesn’t show the actual sale of the animals it’s not covered by Meta’s wildlife trade policies.

One of the biggest challenges in social media regulation is jurisdiction, Chiang says. Some forms of animal exploitation may be legal in one country but illegal in another.

Chaing told delegates that many social media companies didn’t work with law enforcement. “This is something SMACC intends to challenge because we do believe that these platforms have the responsibility to aid law enforcement when a crime has been committed against animals,” she said.

Chiang noted that there was no legislation in Taiwan that mandated social media platforms to work with law enforcement or provide information when a crime had been committed.

She said the Taiwan government was amending the Animal Protection Act and was looking to regulate social media platforms, putting the responsibility on them to remove content that showed the illegal sale of pets and requiring them to provide information.

“However, it’s very limited to just the sale of pets,” Chiang said. “We are trying to convince them to include more animal cruelty in the scope.”

Chiang spoke about how challenging it was to identify the perpetrators of animal cruelty content. It was very difficult, she said, unless investigators knew in which country, or preferably in which city, the act was happening and this information was extremely difficult to obtain.

In Taiwan, it is a criminal offence to disseminate cruelty to animals, and ‘cruelty’ is taken to mean severe harm or the killing of animals online, Chiang told delegates. “It is a criminal offence if you disseminate this form of content, so the police will get involved, but other situations like the improper rearing of animals would not be covered,” she said.

Chiang said that law enforcement officers and even the central government in Taiwan had told the Taiwan SPCA that many of the social media platforms would work with them if they requested information, except for Meta.

O’Brien told delegates about the online safety legislation that is being introduced in the UK and covers animal cruelty content.

She said the SMACC didn’t yet have full details of the legislation as it hasn’t yet been passed, but it’s understood that there will be hefty fines for social media companies that don’t act to remove cruelty content.

“Governments are looking at online harms more and more nowadays,” O’Brien said. “For example, the New Zealand SPCA reached out to SMACC because we’ve been assisting with the online safety bill work. And their government is looking at doing [something] similar.”

Anbarasi Boopal told delegates: “Social media platforms have become spaces where animal cruelty can be organised not just locally but also globally. Often, these groups operate secretly, where there’s a different level of encryption, and it’s very difficult for organisations like us to tackle this issue or track what’s happening.”

The creation of animal cruelty content on social media feeds into animal abuse industries such as the illegal wildlife trade, Boopal says.

The SMACC is currently working with YouTube, TikTok, and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.

The organisation has been encouraging the social media companies to prioritise the use of AI, including machine learning, and other automation technologies to proactively scan, block, or remove offending content.

O’Brien told delegates that the SMACC’s research showed that about 80% of the cruelty content they studied featured primates being kept as pets. She emphasised the importance of taking into account the psychological and long-term suffering of animals beyond the short video that people see online.

Arnaud James said that, under an agreement that the SMACC member organisation World Animal Protection secured with Instagram in 2017, videos of wildlife selfies are meant  to trigger educational messages.

When World Animal Protection members did follow-up research this year they found that only 2% of the videos triggered educational messages. This really showed that Meta’s upkeep of the initiative had failed, Arnaud James said.

She noted, however, that this year, working in collaboration with the SMACC, ACRES, and others, TikTok launched a new animal welfare safety centre on its platform where users are informed about its policies.

TikTok provides guidance on how to report animal cruelty and links to local animal organisations, and gives tips about animal welfare. It has also co-authored articles with the SMACC about key animal welfare issues.

There was a separate session in the afternoon on Day 2 of the AfA conference that was attended by two representatives of TikTok. It was decided that, in the interest of having an open and candid discussion, the media were not allowed to attend.

O’Brien told Changing Times after the conference that, in the afternoon session, TikTok discussed with attendees how the platform approached animal cruelty content and invited organisations to share their input on the issue.

“Attendees from animal organisations across continents asked questions about the moderation processes, shared how cruelty content is linked to their work for animals, and shared their own experiences of reporting content to the platforms,” she said.

“Overall, it was a fruitful discussion that will feed into the work of SMACC and TikTok to protect animals online.”


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