Exclusive: Instagram Fights Animal Abuse With New Alert System


Natasha Daly, National Geographic

Date Published

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Instagram is rife with photos of cute wild animals—including the exotic and endangered. A picture of someone hugging a sloth or showing off a pet tiger cub is just a click away on the massively popular photo-sharing platform, which serves 800 million users.

But starting today, searches for a wide range of wildlife hashtags will trigger a notification informing people of the behind-the-scenes animal abuse that makes some seemingly innocent wildlife photos possible.

Instagram will now deliver a pop-up message whenever someone searches or clicks on a hashtag like “#slothselfie.” The message reads, in part, “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.”

People can then click through to a page Instagram set up in its Help Center to provide a lot more information on wildlife exploitation. Instagram will use the same process for more egregious activity, such as searches for #exoticanimalforsale and other hashtags users post to advertise the sale of live animals or animal parts.

“We care about our community, including the animals and the wildlife that are an important part of the platform,” says Instagram spokeswoman Emily Cain. “I think it’s important for the community right now to be more aware. We’re trying to do our part to educate them.”

Instagram’s decision comes after National Geographic and World Animal Protection’s months-long investigations into the growing industry of problematic wildlife tourism in the Amazon. National Geographic found animals being illegally captured from the rain forest, kept in cages, and hauled out for well-meaning tourists to hold and take selfies with.

The hashtags that trigger the Instagram warnings are in the hundreds, in English and in the local languages of countries like Thailand and Indonesia, where illicit wildlife practices have become endemic.

Instagram developed the list over several months, gathering input from the World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC, a partner organization of the WWF working to monitor wildlife trade, and World Animal Protection on hashtags most associated with concerning behavior.

Cassandra Koenen, head of wildlife campaigns at World Animal Protection, who worked on the list with Instagram, hopes the warnings will make people pause and reflect. “If someone’s behavior is interrupted, hopefully they’ll think, Maybe there’s something more here, or maybe I shouldn’t just automatically like something or forward something or repost something if Instagram is saying to me there’s a problem with this photo.”

Instagram is not disclosing the hashtags it selected, as the company wants users to stumble on them organically. And it doesn’t want those who intentionally use the platform to facilitate illicit wildlife practices to be able to preemptively skirt the warnings.

What it means for wild animals

The warnings are aimed in part at the issue of wildlife selfies, whose prevalence on social media has grown 292 percent since 2014, according to World Animal Protection.

So what’s troubling about a photo of someone hugging a seemingly cuddly wild animal like a koala? It’s the interaction, wildlife experts say. Many animals people most want to cuddle, like sloths, don’t do well being repeatedly handled. It can be very stressful, Koenen says, but it’s hard for people to observe the effects in the animal they’re handling. In fact, research has shown that most tourists are poor judges of whether a wildlife attraction is bad for animals.

Moreover, she adds, it’s often what a photo doesn’t capture that’s most concerning. “Even if the cruelty isn’t right in front of you, [there’s] cruelty that’s behind the scenes to get to that point.”

In many cases animals hugged and cuddled in selfies have been illegally taken from the wild and kept in captivity in deplorable conditions. Other animals that are popular for selfies, like lion and tiger cubs, are speed-bred in captivity and weaned from their mothers much too early. Popular tourist activities like swimming with dolphins or riding elephants, meanwhile, force the animals to undergo a painful taming process, called, in the case of elephants, “the crush.”

Instagram’s move could also help clamp down on the growing problem of wildlife traffickers using social media to buy and sell live animals and poached animal parts. Unlike traditional e-commerce sites like eBay, platforms like Facebook and Instagram allow would-be traffickers to connect and then take their communications—and negotiations—onto a separate, private platform, says Giavanna Grein, wildlife crime program officer at TRAFFIC. Her group hopes the new warnings will disrupt this illicit digital wildlife trade.

“Maybe someone who’s been selling live animals on Instagram will get the popup and think, OK, this is going to get a lot harder for me,” Grein says.

Building on “Phase One”

Instagram already has pop-up warnings for hashtags associated with suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders. “A lot of these other issues are incredibly significant,” Grein says. “So it’s really important for us to see wildlife being elevated to the same space and same conversation. It gives us a lot of hope moving forward.”

Instagram has previously prohibited the posting of content that overtly depicts animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or animal parts. Company spokesperson Cain calls the hashtag initiative “phase one” and says they haven’t yet decided what further steps might be taken to mitigate illicit wildlife practices.

Koenen, of World Animal Protection, wants to get language about animal welfare added to Instagram’s guidelines for what people can post on the platform to begin with. According to Giavanna Grein, TRAFFIC and the World Wildlife Fund plan to focus on suggesting more hashtags and working with Instagram to train employees to spot content involving endangered animals.

“Social media has not yet really woken up to the full scale and extent of the nature of illegal wildlife trade that’s being used and promoted [on social networks],” says Crawford Allan, senior director of TRAFFIC at the World Wildlife Fund. “For Instagram to really step up now and recognize it and take strong measures, I think is very significant. And it will set an important yardstick for others in social media to think about and follow.”

World Animal Protection’s Cassandra Koenen agrees: “Instagram is, with its 800 million users, an incredible platform to change public opinion.”

Natasha Daly is an assistant editor at National Geographic covering animal welfare, wildlife crime, and culture.