Instagram project to tackle abusive animal content is half-cocked, study finds

Asian elephant close-up
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Social media companies are not doing enough to tackle abusive content involving non-human animals on their platforms, a recent study suggests. In this instance, researchers found that an initiative by Instagram to flag content that risks encouraging cruel wildlife tourism interactions is severely lacking. But the issue goes beyond Instagram, as prior investigations into abusive content involving non-human animals on other platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok, have shown.

Tourism-related abuse

Instagram introduced a pop-up alert on its platform in 2017 that would display when people searched for hashtags about selfies with wild animals. The pop-up explains that animal abuse and the selling of endangered animals, or their body parts, isn’t allowed on the platform. It further warns:

You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment.

As the pop-up suggests, tourist interactions with wildlife can involve cruelty. Firstly, these interactions often involve captivity, an unnatural environment for wildlife. Moreover, forcing wild animals to interact with people can be distressing for them and their captors may subject them to abusive treatment in order to make them compliant.

As the Canary has reported, for example, training elephants to endure people riding on their backs and other interactions can involve extreme cruelty. Some are snatched from the wild as youngsters, and most endure a brutal training regime known as ‘pajan’ to subdue their wild natures. The process can involve beating, crushing and starving the elephants, among other abuses.

Global Head of Wildlife Research at World Animal Protection, Dr Neil D’Cruze said:

The trend of posting wildlife selfies on social media involves the suffering and exploitation of some of the world’s most iconic wild animals from across the globe. The animals suffer both in front of, and behind the camera.

Read on...

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People need to be made aware of the cruelty that typically lies behind tourism experiences that offer direct interactions with wild animals. We need to shift the social acceptability of visiting irresponsible wildlife tourist attractions, which offer everything from elephant rides, walking with lions, and swimming with captive dolphins – and then plastering it all over social media.

An inadequate initiative

However, according to a study by World Animal Protection and researchers affiliated with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), although Instagram’s wildlife selfie pop-up initiative is well-intentioned, it is highly flawed.

The researchers looked into 244 relevant hashtags to see if the pop-up appeared. Instagram users had utilised the reviewed hashtags in at least one post – oftentimes many more – involving images of concerning interactions with elephants. But only 2% of the hashtags, amounting to five in total, triggered the pop-up. In other words, 98% of the hashtags slipped under the radar of Instagram’s alert. For instance, the hashtags #elephantselfie and #elephantride did trigger the pop-up but similar ones such as #elephantselfies and #elephantrides did not.

Explaining some background to the findings, research associate at WildCRU, Dr Lauren Harrington said:

We set out aiming to explore the effect of viewers reading Instagram’s pop-up alert on the resultant popularity of the post and the perceptions of viewers commenting on the post. The reality is that most viewers will not even have seen the alert.

Instagram and other large social media platforms undoubtedly have considerable resources and technological expertise at their disposal – they can and need to do far more in terms of taking responsibility for the cruel and inappropriate wild animal content they host on their platforms.

The Canary contacted Instagram for comment. It did not respond by the time of publication.

Platforms have a responsibility to stop abusive content

The study makes a number of recommendations on how Instagram could strengthen the initiative. It calls for the social media platform to implement the alert more consistently and widely at various points in the user process. Moreover, it argues for Instagram to remove posts that depict animal cruelty and use technology to stop people uploading them in the first place.

D’Cruze said:

Instagram and other social media platforms have a responsibility to prevent harmful content being posted on their platform. In the longer term, they should be taking full advantage of the technological advances of artificial intelligence (AI).

A powered image recognition tool could detect and remove content that depicts all forms of wild animal cruelty, removing the burden from users to identify animal abuse content and prevent this content from being uploaded in the first place.

Legislators can also play a part in tackling the issue. Due to the abuse involved in animal-related tourism, for instance, the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill is currently moving through the UK parliament. If passed, this legislation would prohibit the advertising and sale of tourism activities in England and the north of Ireland that are linked to abuse. The law isn’t on course to apply to the UK overall because Wales and Scotland have chosen not to opt-in to it. The bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords on 14 July.

A lot more work to do

A disturbing BBC investigation in June made clear how urgent it is that platforms to do more to tackle cruel content. It investigated a global network of people who created and distributed torture and murder videos involving infant monkeys. As the BBC explained, the torture ring began on YouTube before moving to the private messaging app Telegram. The BBC also found “dozens of groups sharing extreme content” on Facebook.

Both YouTube and Facebook told the BBC that they do not permit animal abuse on their platforms. YouTube said it had removed “hundreds of thousands of videos and terminated thousands of channels” for violative content this year. Facebook also said that it removes abusive content “when we become aware of it”. Meanwhile, Telegram indicated that its moderators can only tackle abusive content in private groups when users in those groups report it to them.

However, World Animal Protection says that social media companies’ efforts thus far to detect and remove abusive content “is not sufficiently thorough”.

From playing their part in eliminating the social acceptability of selfies with abused wild beings, through to stopping the uploading and distribution of torture and murder videos involving animals, these companies clearly have a lot more work to do.

Featured image Rivera0997 / Wikimedia, cropped to 1910×1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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