On October 2, New Tang Dynasty Television, a station affiliated with the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, posted a Facebook video showing a woman rescuing a baby shark stranded on a shore. Next to the video was the link to subscribe The Epoch Times, a newspaper linked to Falun Gong and which spreads anti-China and right-wing conspiracies. The post garnered 33,000 likes, comments and shares.
, website of Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician who researchers say is a major dissemination of online coronavirus misinformation, regularly posts about such cute animals generating tens or hundreds of thousands of interactions on Facebook. Stories include “Kitten and Chick Nap So Sweet Together” and “Why Orange Cats Can Be Different From Other Cats”, written by Dr. Karen Baker, a veterinarian.
and The Western Journal, a right-wing publication that has published unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, and spread lies about fraud in the 2020 presidential election, according to a popular Facebook page, Liftable. Animals is the owner. Liftable Animals posts stories from the Western Journal’s main website with stories about golden retrievers and giraffes.
Videos and GIFs of cute animals – usually cats – have been going viral online for almost as long as the internet has been around. Several animals became famous: there are Keyboard Cat, Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub and Nyan Cat, just to name a few.
Now, it’s becoming increasingly clear how widely old-fashioned Internet tricks are being used by individuals and organizations, say misinformation researchers.
Posts with animals do not directly spread misinformation. But they can attract a huge audience that may be redirected to a publication or site that spreads misinformation about election fraud, unproven coronavirus cures and other baseless conspiracy theories that are not entirely related to the video. . Sometimes, following cute animal feeds on Facebook inadvertently signs users up as subscribers to deceptive posts from the same publisher.
Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches misinformation, said that such “engagement enticements” helped misinformation actors generate clicks to their pages, which would allow them to engage with future users. Could make feed more prominent. She said prominence can lead to content with false or misleading information to a wider audience.
“The strategy works because platforms continue to reward engagement on everything,” Ms Ryan said, “even when it comes to engagement” publications that also publish false or misleading content.
Perhaps no organization employs this strategy as forcefully as Epoch Media, the parent company of The Epoch Times. According to an analysis by The New York Times, Epoch Media has published videos of cute animals in 12,062 posts on its 103 Facebook pages over the past year. The posts, which include links to other Epoch media websites, garnered nearly four billion views. Trending World, one of Epoch’s Facebook pages, was the 15th most popular page on the platform in the United States between July and September.
A video posted last month by The Epoch Times’ Taiwan page shows a close-up of a golden retriever while a woman tries in vain to get an apple out of her mouth. It is over 20,000 Likes, Shares and Comments on Facebook, Another post on Trending World’s Facebook page showed a seal smiling widely with a family for a photo at Sea World resort. NS Video has 12 million views,
Epoch Media did not respond to a request for comment.
“Dr. Baker is a veterinarian, his articles are about pets,” said an email from Dr. Mercola’s public relations team. “We reject any allegations by The New York Times of misleading any visitor, but are not surprised by this.”
Viral animal videos often come from places like Jukin Media And the viral hog. Companies identify highly shareable videos and reach licensing deals with the people who make them. After acquiring the rights to the video, Zukin Media and Viralhog license the clip to other media companies, giving the original creator a cut of the profits.
Mike Skogmo, Juqin Media’s senior vice president for marketing and communications, said his company had struck a licensing deal with New Tang Dynasty Television, a station affiliated with Falun Gong.
“Jukin has licensing deals in place with hundreds of publishers worldwide, across the political spectrum and with a range of subject matters, to protect the creators of the works in our library,” he said in a statement.
Asked whether the company has evaluated whether his clips were used as engagement bait for misinformation in license deals, Mr Skogmo said Zukin had nothing more to add.
“Once someone licenses our raw material, what they do with it is up to them,” said Ryan Bartholomew, founder of Viralhog. “Viralhog is not endorsing or opposing any cause or purpose – which would be outside the scope of our business.”
The use of animal videos presents a conundrum for tech platforms such as Facebook, as animal posts themselves do not contain misinformation. Facebook bans ads from Epoch Media when the network Violated its political advertising policy, and it removed several hundred era media-affiliated accounts The last Year When it was determined that the accounts violated its “Coordinated Unauthenticated Behavior” policies.
“We have already taken enforcement action several times against Epoch Media and related groups,” said Facebook spokesman Drew Pussateri. “We will continue to take action against them if we find that they are engaging in deceptive practices in the future.” The company did not comment on the strategy of using cute animals to spread misinformation.
Rachel E., a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online misinformation. Moran said it was unclear how often the animal videos gave people misinformation. But posting them remains a popular strategy because they run such a low risk of breaking a forum’s rules.
“Photos of beautiful animals and videos of good moments are the bread and butter of social media, and certainly will not back down from any algorithmic content moderation detection,” said Ms. Moran.
“People are still using it every day,” she said.
jacob silver Contributed to research.