Fake Rescues and Animal Torture Are Disturbingly Common on Social Media

A new report claims social media giants are not doing enough to regulate animal cruelty content on their platforms.
September 1, 2021, 9:31am
Animals and social media
Collage: VICE / Images: (L) Alin Luna and (R) ROBIN WORRALL, Unsplash

In what appears to be a filmed, staged rescue posted to YouTube, a snake is shown coiled around a moaning puppy while a man rushes to help, untangling the reptile from the shaken dog. In another video, someone picks up a dog by its hind legs, swinging it hammer throw-style and slamming it on the ground. 

These are just some examples of more than 5,000 videos considered to show animal cruelty across YouTube, Facebook and TikTok, according to a new report published late last month intended to raise awareness about the problem and to call on companies to take action. 

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The posts were collected from July 2020 to August this year by a working group of the Asia for Animals Coalition, which consists of 22 animal welfare organizations and is supported by hundreds more around the world. Coordinator Sarah Grant said the report developed organically “as it became obvious [that] the sheer volume of cruelty and scale of suffering we were seeing needed to be documented.”

The group found that the videos fall into one of four categories of animal cruelty, differentiated by their ambiguity and intentionality. Common themes include using animals as entertainment and fake animal rescues, where animals are put in harm’s way to be “saved” by humans. There are also cases of deliberate animal torture—in one video, a monkey was forced to stand up straight against a wall as punishment for breaking a bowl.

The videos identified as containing animal cruelty have racked up a total of over 5 billion views across social media sites, the report said. Some are even monetized, featuring advertisements for companies and, ironically, some animal welfare groups. However, it also noted that the advertisers often do not know that they are being featured in such content. 

Indonesia emerged as the top country of origin of the videos. However, the report emphasized that animal cruelty is a global problem, pointing out that the videos’ location might have been incorrectly stated. The group noted that the content it studied was collected via snowball sampling—finding one video leads to others with related content.

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A few videos were taken down after they were reported to the platforms last month, but Grant said many remained live when they last checked. The group sent a summary of the report to the three social media platforms a week before its release but received mixed results. 

“I’m really not sure at this stage what else it will take to get these media giants to take notice of the shocking scale of animal cruelty they are allowing to spread on their platforms,” said Grant.

VICE World News contacted the social media companies named in the report, and all reiterated restrictions on animal cruelty content.

“YouTube has never allowed content that’s violent or abusive toward animals and our teams review and update our policies to keep them current,” a YouTube spokesperson said. The platform recently expanded its policy for animal abuse content to include staged animal rescue videos where animals are placed in harmful situations, they added.

A TikTok spokesperson said the platform uses a combination of technology and human screening to weed out such content.

“Our Community Guidelines make clear that we do not tolerate animal cruelty on our platform, and we take action when people violate these rules—up to and including permanently banning them from the platform,” said the spokesperson, adding that they have removed “a number of the videos” discovered by the working group. As of writing, VICE World News found that many of the over 100 videos TikTok was alerted to appear to have been taken down.

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Out of the over 440 videos flagged to Facebook, at least 100 were still up as of Tuesday night when accessed by VICE World News. Meanwhile, some of the videos register as “unavailable” while others link out to unrelated videos.

“We prohibit anyone from sharing harm, glorifying violence or celebrating the suffering of animals on Facebook and we will remove this content as soon as we become aware of it. We will disable accounts, Pages or Groups that repeatedly break our rules,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Further complicating the problem, some videos might have been posted to condemn animal cruelty. In one post seen by VICE World News, a woman crushes a small rabbit by sitting on it over a thick layer of glass. The caption accompanying the video expressed sympathy and shock at the cruel act. 

Grant advises against posting or interacting with such content on social media, even if it’s something like hitting the angry reaction on Facebook. Even well-intentioned ways of engaging with the content inadvertently propagate it.

“I think the most shocking [thing] is how easily the content is spread,” said Grant. “Most people I’ve spoken to would, at the very least, engage in animal cruelty content by expressing their outrage or sharing the videos.”

“My advice would be to follow the five steps—be aware, report them, do not watch them, do not engage, do not share.”

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