A tourist poses for a photo with an elephant after it performed in a show in Thailand. World AnimalProtection believes that wildlife should be left in the wild

Instagram fails to prevent animal cruelty

Press release

World Animal Protection research reveals pop-up warning on the social media site has not stopped cruel wildlife selfie trend

An Instagram initiative designed to warn tourists of cruel wildlife interactions has failed, according to a scientific study by researchers from international NGO, World Animal Protection and affiliated with University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).

The social media site’s ‘wildlife selfie alert’ was launched in 2017, with the aim of informing its users about the negative welfare impacts of taking cruel selfies with wild animals.

The phenomenon of ‘wildlife selfies’ shared on social media may seem harmless but can involve one or more forms of animal cruelty. Animals used in many wildlife tourism attractions are often illegally or unsustainably captured from the wild, kept in poor conditions, or subject to cruel treatment in order to train them to be submissive enough to interact with the public.

To raise awareness, Instagram introduced the pop-up wildlife selfie alert, that is triggered when users search for wild animal selfie hashtags (e.g., #elephantselfie). Although clearly well intentioned, the study found the pop-up alert system is limited, inconsistent, and, often, mismatched with the type of content it intended to highlight.

The research looked at 244 hashtags, all of which were used in at least one post that showed relevant images of people making concerning close or direct interactions with elephants – only five (2%) of these hashtags, when searched for, triggered the alert. The remaining 98% of hashtags used with posts showing cruel elephant selfies failed to trigger Instagram’s alert system. Researchers found that the differences between hashtags that did and did not trigger the alert were minor. For example, the hashtag #elephantselfie triggered the warning, but #elephantselfies did not, even though both were used in posts showing concerning wildlife selfies.

Moreover, the pop-up alert system is only seen by users when searching for a hashtag that triggers it, it is not seen when posting an image, or when viewing a post on an account that the user follows. 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.

“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.

“The sad reality is that many of these venues and activities involve taking wild animals from their mothers as babies, keeping them chained in unsuitable, cramped conditions or repeatedly baiting them with food, causing severe psychological trauma - just so visitors can get photo.”

Dr Lauren Harrington, Research Associate at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit 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 study recommends that Instagram’s wildlife selfie alert needs to be implemented more widely, consistently, and triggered at different points in the user process for it to work as intended. To be more effective, a warning should be triggered when:

  • a user posts an image with a flagged hashtag
  • when a post that includes a flagged hashtag is viewed
  • when a post that includes a flagged hashtag is ‘liked’ or commented on
  • and then when a post that includes a flagged hashtag is searched for.

In addition, Instagram should act proactively by:

  • Removing posts depicting animal cruelty currently on the platform
  • Expanding the hashtags that trigger the warning
  • Apply technological advances to prevent harmful content being uploaded in the first place.

D’Cruze continued:

“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.

“Instagram’s wildlife selfie initiative was commendable but given its apparent lack of effect, we urge Instagram and other social platforms to do more to prevent animal cruelty content from being posted on their platforms and to depict wildlife tourism that is not rooted in animal suffering.”

Find out more about responsible tourism.

Notes to the editor:

  • In October 2017, Instagram was alerted that cutting-edge image recognition research undertaken by World Animal Protection showed a 292% increase in the number of selfies with wild animals posted on the site since 2014. More than 40% of those selfie photos showed particularly bad interactions with wild animals - someone hugging, holding or inappropriately handling a wild animal.
  • When one of their 2.35 billion monthly active Instagram users searches for a hashtag associated with harmful behaviour to animals, they will see a content advisory screen: “Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts are not allowed on Instagram.” ·
  • World Animal Protection is a member of the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC) which is a collaboration between 20 animal protection organizations aiming to shine a light on the hidden world of online animal cruelty in all its forms, and to lead the way in ending it
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