How Social Media Encourages The Exotic Animal Trade
Social media can be a powerful force for good or bad, with the bad often masquerading as good. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in how social media promotes the exploitation of exotic animals — defined as animals without a history of domestication who are not traditionally viewed as companion animals — under the guise of “cute animal videos.” Search “cute monkey” on YouTube and you will find dozens of videos with millions of views each depicting monkeys in free handling situations, defined as having an unnatural interaction with humans (as opposed to natural, wild situations). You will also find that the public sentiment towards these videos in terms of likes, comments, and subscriptions is overwhelmingly positive.
Although the exotic animal trade is technically tightly regulated by the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), illegal wildlife trade persists as a massive business. By some estimates, trafficking in wild animals is the third largest illegal business in the world, closely following the drug and weapons trades. Unfortunately, the illegal animal trade is intensely supported by the use of social media. Social media allows the public to engage with unregulated exotic animal content which contributes to increasing demand for these animals.
The increased trade in exotic animals is not only problematic because of welfare concerns for individual animals being taken from their natural habitats, but it also harms the biodiversity of these habitats. It is therefore important to precisely understand the trends in and extent of the positive sentiment towards free handling exotic animal content. That way, social media sites can be urged to make policy changes and content management which prevents the legitimization of and demand for the exotic animal trade.
In this study, the authors analyzed public attitudes towards exotic animals on YouTube specifically. As the largest global online video website, YouTube is often how the public interacts with exotic animal content. The researchers focused on primate and wild cat species due to their particular popularity in the exotic animal trade. They entered popular search terms such as “cute”, “pet”, “jaguar”, “capuchin monkey”, and many more into YouTube and collected 346 popular videos from 2006-2019 for analysis.
The researchers were interested in how public sentiment changed across various dimensions. They looked at how sentiment changed over time; how it depended on if the interaction depicted was positive (e.g. if “cuddling” was depicted), negative (if violence was depicted), or neutral; and how it depended on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List status of the animal depicted (e.g. ‘Endangered’ or ‘Vulnerable’). The comments from these videos were then analyzed by commonly used sentiment analyzer software programs, which scored each comment on a scale between +1 (positive) and -1 (negative) based on a library of words and their implied sentiment. The researchers also distinguished between purely text comments and comments with emojis: they analyzed these separately so that the sentiment from emoji comments could be a useful check on the results from the larger text dataset.
In their paper, the researchers give an extensive listing of the public sentiments found across all of the dimensions noted above. One key finding was that median sentiment scores varied across the species depicted but were all ultimately positive. Along with the finding that terms like “cute”, “like”, and “love” were among the most common in the comments, this indicated that the public generally engaged favorably with exotic animal content. They found that median emoji sentiment was positive whether the interaction depicted in the video was positive, negative, or neutral. As well, median text sentiment was positive for positive and neutral interactions, although median text sentiment was negative for negative interactions. Text and emoji sentiment varied little between IUCN Red List statuses, although the researchers found that there was a slight downward trend in sentiment for ‘Vulnerable’ primates as opposed to ‘Least Concern’ primates. These latter two trends perhaps suggest that the public’s perception of exotic animal content skews negative when it is clear that the content being displayed is problematic: the challenge is then to make clear to the public that all such exotic animal-free handling content is problematic.
YouTube’s current regulatory system relies largely on users flagging content. However, this study shows that the public is very likely to mistake signs of distress or mistreatment of exotic animals for “cute” exotic animal-human interactions. Moreover, it is not clear from YouTube’s policy guidelines that there is any ban on content showing the free handling of exotic animals, despite the prohibitions against such behavior in many of the countries in which YouTube operates.
The authors suggest that YouTube use software to detect key terms in video titles and descriptions and artificial intelligence systems such as the ‘Wildbook’ software framework which can accurately detect if content is displaying exotic animals. Pop-ups could then make users aware that they are supporting the illegal exotic animal trade. The researchers showed that the public does respond when presented with such information: they observed a negative trend in sentiment towards slow loris (primates) videos around 2015, likely due to the “Tickling is Torture” campaign which spread awareness about slow loris exploitation.
However, along with informing the public about the conservation and welfare concerns associated with the exotic animal trade, previous research shows that informing the public about the risk of infectious diseases and legal consequences from the exotic animal trade is essential in swaying public opinion. More strongly still, the authors suggest that YouTube could strengthen their policies on exotic animal content and broadly send any flagged content to further review, removing any videos showing illicit free handling situations as opposed to exotic animals in the wild.
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