OUR social media feeds may be dominated by cat memes and adorable puppy videos, but beneath the surface a more disturbing animal trend is on the rise.
A worrying number of influencers have recently been exposed abusing their pets online – often in an intentional, warped quest for "likes".
The issue was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month when YouTuber Brooke Houts uploaded a video of herself taunting and hitting her Doberman, Sphinx.
In the shocking film, the 20-year-old tried to "prank" the dog by making him run through plastic wrap – but “accidentally” included scenes of her smacking, pinning down and appearing to spit on him.
Boasting more than 300,000 subscribers, the American has now been investigated by the LAPD’s animal cruelty unit and slammed by celebrities including Love Island's Doctor Alex and YouTuber Logan Paul.
The incident also sparked an urgent appeal from PETA, which called for websites including Facebook and YouTube to impose a “permanent ban on any users who post photos or videos of themselves harming animals”.
TIDE OF ABUSE
However, the uncomfortable truth is that Houts is far from the only offender.
Across the Internet, there are thousands of videos racking up millions of hits for "pranks" on pets – much to the horror of animal lovers.
Last month, Ricky Gervais tweeted he wanted to "smash the face in" of a YouTuber who filmed himself biting and battering his traumatised puppy.
Just last week, a twisted schoolgirl sparked outrage after chucking her shih tzu into a tumble dryer on Instagram Live. And yesterday, clothing brand BoohooMAN were forced to swiftly delete a video of a rat being kicked about by builders in a bizarre promo for the football season.
Meanwhile, the YouTube search "save puppy from python" reveals a number of films where dogs and cats are placed in harm’s way, with amateurishly staged scenes seeing "rescuers" only stepping in once they are attacked or even constricted by snakes.
It’s just one example of how uploaders increasingly pull the wool over social regulators’ eyes. While illegal dogfights are swiftly cracked down on, for instance, a video of a chained monkey being forced to fight a dog currently has 20million hits.
Craig Jackson, psychology professor at the University of Birmingham, explains the number of people "mentally able" to abuse animals is on the rise and shows "severe warning signs of psychological problems".
He says: "Those who abuse their partners or torture their children often begin by taking their frustrations out on family pets first.
"For the angry, who feel they can no longer take out their frustrations on those who were traditionally “fair targets” (be it racism or sexism) animals may represent the last lifeforms they feel they can pick on.
The problem is partially in the technology – seeing and sharing the videos is done so quickly that people do so without thinking about whether they should
" I certainly think that many in society are forgetting how to be kind and compassionate, and this is being replaced by the instant reward of notoriety and internet likes for uploading such cruelty.
"The problem is partially in the technology – seeing and sharing the videos is done so quickly that people do so without thinking about whether they should, or what the consequences may be.
"I am sure that both emotional immaturity and lack of any wider social responsibilities in life are key elements that allow sharers to do what they do without hesitation."
The phenomenon is deeply worrying for animal welfare charities like the RSPCA, who have seen reports of abuse on platforms like Snapchat rise as much as 300 per cent in recent years.
With a January study suggesting that one in five young children now aspires to be an influencer, there are fears that popular stars could "normalise" such behaviour among their impressionable followers.
Houts has since apologised for her actions, and the LAPD investigation concluded that she should ultimately be allowed to keep her pet. It has led to concerns from PETA that “one day of outrage isn’t enough to stop streamers from hurting animals”.
Sara McCorquodale, founder of influencer analytics company CORQ and author of upcoming book Influence, says the sheer pace of life on social media means that even the most shocking abuse can soon be yesterday’s news – and far from career-ending.
“There’s a real culture of cancellation, where an influencer does something that’s very unpopular and the Internet community says ‘you’re done’,” she explains. “But actually because digital and social media moves so quickly, that cancellation doesn’t really last.
“There’s also a really big narrative of redemption – somebody does something wrong, then they make a heartfelt apology video which tends to be very well watched.
“What Brooke did will not haunt her within the community of YouTube. If she can put up with the trolls, it won’t ruin her career.”
The stark reality of vlogging, she explains, means that only early adopters like Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg and Alfie Deyes can truly make their millions through YouTube alone.
While Houts, in this sense, is unlikely to be hugely profiting from her scandal, it has undoubtedly raised her profile. A month ago, her page views were in the tens of thousands – now, her newest post has clocked up over two million.
SICK PRANKS THRIVING
The squeaky clean image of Zoella’s generation is also giving way to a new breed of social media stars either seemingly immune to outrage or actively profiting from it. Many of them commercially far outstrip Houts too.
Last month, gamer sensation Natalia "Alinity Divine" Mogollon came under fire for viciously hurling her cat over her shoulder while broadcasting streaming service Twitch, where she boasts more than 800,000 followers.
A user with near-identical numbers revealed to fans that the service earns him a "base salary" of $20,000 a month – and that’s before even considering the advertising partnerships Alinity has enjoyed with brands like computer firm IBuyPower (the company tells Sun Online their partnership ended in May).
Despite calls for her to be banned from Twitch following a string of controversies, Alinity has continued to be allowed to stream.
More prominently, Vitaly Zdorovetskiy, who shot to fame when his girlfriend Kinsey Wolanski streaked during the Champions League final, was accused last year of animal cruelty when he filmed a "stoned" chimpanzee smoking a bong on Twitter.
Crucially, Zdorovetskiy’s fame has been built on a fanbase that actually encourages his outlandish behaviour.
Unlike Houts, whose channel is running without adverts in the wake of her ‘abuse’ backlash, the Russian prankster is still making money from his other videos.
While YouTube cuts off advertising on his more controversial videos, he can still profit from the others – according to naibuzz.com, he can earn up to $,1700 per DAY.
Much of the coverage his stunts attract is also used to drive supporters to his website, Vitaly Uncensored, whose subscription service has helped earn him an estimated fortune of at least $3million. Its slogan is "wild pranks, t*ts, a**, no rules".
“For a lot of YouTubers, they’re so immersed in the communities they’ve built they become quite unaware of what’s socially acceptable in a wider narrative,” says McCorquodale.
“What’s acceptable in the real world and their YouTube channel are very different things.
"If you want to get millions of views getting on the homepage, the easiest way is to make content that’s outrageous and gets a lot of reaction.
"It sets a worrying precedent because it becomes less about quality and more about shock value. They’re under a huge amount of pressure to be trending and that’s why they resort to these stunts."
YouTube's shameful history exposed
This isn't the first time YouTube has been exposed for hosting shocking content.
In December last year, popular YouTube vlogger Logan Paul sparked controversy after filming the body of a suicide victim.
The clip, which was posted to YouTube, showed the recently deceased corpse of someone who had hung themselves in a forest in Japan.
Paul earned millions of views within hours, but was widely condemned. He eventually removed the video, issued an apology, and took a month-long break from YouTube.
The Sun has also uncovered a rogue steroids advert, a secret cache of porn, smut playlists designed to "lure kids", and webcam sex ads on YouTube.
ABUSE BEING NORMALISED
The fear for welfare charities is that as we shift from the Zoella to Vitaly generation, budding influencers will pack in the make-up tutorials and instead seek out ever more extreme "pranks" to stand out from the crowd.
In 2018, the RSPCA investigated 130,700 cases of animal cruelty and says the number shared on sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat continues to rise.
The briefest of searches on YouTube alone brings up dozens of "copycat" videos that have remained online for years.
In one, a prankster replaces his goldfish’s water tank with a bowl of whiskey, to see how it copes. The comments, though attracting some criticism, are mostly supportive – with one user joking “that fish’s eyes must be burning lmfao”.
Young people could easily witness animals being beaten and even killed in graphic detail
Sickeningly, such encouraging comments are beginning to appear under more serious examples of abuse too. YouTube continues to host a 2016 video in which a visibly distressed baby monkey is tethered to a post and fed alcohol, while another uploaded in January depicts a pitbull fighting a TIGER. It has more than 900,000 views.
A RSPCA spokesman told the Sun Online: “It’s extremely concerning that animals are suffering and that this sort of content can normalise – and even make light of – animal cruelty.
“What’s even more worrying is the level of cruelty that can often be seen in these videos, particularly as many of these online platforms are so popular with young people who could easily witness animals being beaten and even killed in graphic detail.
“Celebrities, YouTubers and social media influencers have a responsibility to promote kindness and compassion towards animals, and to encourage their fans and followers to also be kind to animals.”
The debate will rage on about how to best crack down on these channels.
PETA may be calling for an outright ban for abusive users, but as McCorquodale points out, deplatforming someone on YouTube will just see them jump ship to another website – and their audience will follow.
“The only real way this could be regulated is if the law said social platforms were liable for every single person on their website,” she says.
“Maybe that could happen, but it would be an enormous shift. The only other possibility would be a cross-party treaty where platforms said we’re not going to stand for X, Y or Z anymore.”
The RSPCA is campaigning for animal welfare to be added to the National Curriculum, and education remains the most immediate form of action.
It’s time influencers like Houts realised a puppy isn’t just for YouTube, it’s for life.
Protections against animal abuse
A YouTube spokesman said: "YouTube's Community Guidelines do not allow content featuring violence and incitement to commit crime, including animal abuse.
"Educational, documentary, or scientific content such as content featuring animals fighting in the wild, such as in a nature documentary are allowed with the appropriate context and intent."
The website has a three strikes policy, in which a user’s channel will be terminated if it is found to repeatedly post videos that include:
- Content where there is infliction of unnecessary suffering or harm deliberately causing an animal distress.
- Content where animals are encouraged or coerced to fight by humans.
- Pranks that lead victims to fear imminent serious physical danger, or that create serious emotional distress in minors.
In June, the government announced tough new laws that means owners who torture their pets will be locked up for up to five years – a rise on the previous maximum of six months.
Dog fight organisers, farmers who neglect horses and thugs who abuse puppies or kittens will all be hit by the lengthy jail sentence.
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