Animal cruelty on social media platforms isn’t new, but hundreds of videos on social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube of wild animals being kept as pets in hostile environments have been going viral in the past year, a new report finds.
Videos showing wild animals being abused and kept as pets receive billions of views on social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, according to a report by the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC). Between September 2021 and September 2022, SMACC found 840 videos depicting endangered wild animals such as macaques, tigers and lions physically and psychologically tormented by humans with a total of 11.8 billion views.
The report, which was produced by a coalition of 13 global animal protection organizations, found disturbing videos of wild animals being physically and psychologically tormented by people who are seen “slapping, hitting, biting, shaking, or knocking animals over.” Many of the videos show these wild creatures being kept as pets, which is abusive and damaging in its own right. Of the videos collected, roughly 60% were found on Facebook and 25% were found on YouTube. A group of 50 volunteers who collected the videos also reported them to the platforms, but none were taken down by the time SMACC analyzed the data October 2022.
Jen Ridings, a Meta spokesperson, responded to the report saying the company will review the content and take action against violative content. Meta’s policies for prohibited violent and graphic content includes explicit physical harm or abuse done to animals. However, the company, which relies on community reports, technology and human reviewers to monitor content, does not have any policies regarding content showing wild animals as pets.
TikTok responded by citing its own community guidelines, which ban content that promotes illegal wildlife trade and animal cruelty. YouTube’s policies prohibit content that show deliberate physical harm to animals, according to YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon. “While the videos provided by Forbes don’t violate our policies, we’re committed to removing any content that violates our Community Guidelines,” Malon told Forbes in an email.
Sixty-four percent of these videos featured endangered species as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including baby macaques and slow lorises.
“What may look like a loving owner feeding their pet tiger with milk, what they are seeing is actually an endangered species who has and will suffer immensely.”
With a lack of priority by social media giants and a dearth of education about the harmful psychological effects of owning wild animals as pets, these videos get shared billions of times, with the algorithms of social media companies further promoting their circulation. Users tend to think such content is “cute,” but research shows these videos have encouraged other viewers to buy wild animals (legally or illegally) and keep them as pets.
In particular, the SMACC report found that social media played a role in increased demand for slow lorises as pets. “Like all wild animals, these endangered primates are completely unsuited to life as domestic pets,” said Alan Night, president of International Animal Rescue, who was quoted in the report. “Before they are sold, lorises suffer the agony of having their teeth cut out with nail clippers or wire cutters to render them defenseless.”
Researcher and SMACC lead coordinator Nicola O’Brien says that while deliberate physical abuse and torture is easily recognizable, psychological abuse such as teasing, frightening or dressing wild animals as humans is much more subtle and often goes unnoticed. For example, one video on Facebook showed someone dangling a macaque over a balcony. In another, a pet baby macaque is repeatedly thrown into the sea and is seen swimming back to the human. In a popular Facebook video with 26 million views, macaques are seen jumping around, scared, after they’ve been threatened by their owners.
“What may look like a loving owner feeding their pet tiger with milk, what they are seeing is actually an endangered species who has and will suffer immensely,” O’Brien says. “Obtaining these animals supports a dangerous and often illegal worldwide trade, threatening animal welfare and endangered species protection.”
Wild animals are often advertised, bought and sold on social media platforms and end-to-end encrypted communication platforms like Snapchat and WhatsApp, according to the report. Traffickers resort to private groups on social media platforms like Facebook to sell wild animals illegally. As the fourth-largest illicit economy in the world, wildlife trafficking was quick to pivot to digital spaces like social media, says Catherine Semcer, a research fellow at Property and Environment Research Center. Despite intolerance from law enforcement agencies and the violation of social media guidelines, wildlife trafficking continues to take place on darker corners of social media, she says.
“To date, I haven’t seen any sufficient, you know, relationships being developed between the social media companies and the law enforcement community to tackle the problem of wildlife trafficking,” Semcer says.
Animal abuse videos on social media is not a new issue. The coalition has published several reports on various aspects of animal abuse on social media, including an investigation into a trend of fake rescue videos, in which animals are deliberately put in dangerous situations so that they can be fake rescued for a video.
SMACC says that Meta has been collaborating with the nonprofit for more than a year, and in June 2022 it began working on flagging content that shows captured primates like pet macaques and training their moderators to identify fake rescue videos. TikTok has also started preliminary work with SMACC since August 2022.
“To date, I haven’t seen any sufficient, you know, relationships being developed between the social media companies and the law enforcement community to tackle the problem of wildlife trafficking.”
In October 2021, Nina Jackel, the founder of a nonprofit against animal cruelty, Lady Freethinker, sued YouTube for the exploitation of animals shown on YouTube videos and for profiting from them rather than taking them down. In 2020, Lady Freethinker conducted an investigation and found 2,000 YouTube videos, which portrayed harmful behavior towards animals. These videos, most of which violated YouTube’s community guidelines, had more than 1 billion views. Lady Freethinker estimates that these videos helped YouTube creators make $15 million and YouTube itself book $12 million. The nonprofit reached out to YouTube with the findings of the report but did not get any response, which resulted in the lawsuit, Jackel says.
“We focus on finding and reporting YouTube channels with lots of followers such as those that showed baby monkeys in captivity. And we found that YouTube plays ads at the beginning of these videos very often, so YouTube is definitely making money on them,” Jackel told Forbes.
O’Brien from SMACC is hopeful that social media giants like YouTube and Meta will begin to take responsibility for the bulk of animal abuse videos on their platform and also take down videos that not only show blatant physical abuse but are also harmful for wild animals in more subtle, psychological ways.
“There are moments where I do find it very difficult and frustrating. Progress can be really really slow while animal abuse videos have been growing at a faster rate” she says.