The viewer doesn't always seem to care - response to fake animal rescues on YouTube and implications for social media self-policing policies.
Animal-related content on social media is hugely popular but is not always appropriate in terms of how animals are portrayed or how they are treated. This has potential implications beyond the individual animals involved, for viewers, for wild animal populations, and for societies and their interactions with animals. Whilst social media platforms usually publish guidelines for permitted content, enforcement relies at least in part on viewers reporting inappropriate posts. Currently, there is no external regulation of social media platforms. Based on a set of 241 'fake animal rescue' videos that exhibited clear signs of animal cruelty and strong evidence of being deliberately staged (i.e. fake), we found little evidence that viewers disliked the videos and an overall mixed response in terms of awareness of the fake nature of the videos, and their attitudes towards the welfare of the animals involved. Our findings suggest, firstly, that, despite the narrowly defined nature of the videos used in this case study, exposure rates can be extremely high (one of the videos had been viewed over 100 million times), and, secondly, that many YouTube viewers cannot identify (or are not concerned by) animal welfare or conservation issues within a social media context. In terms of the current policy approach of social media platforms, our findings raise questions regarding the value of their current reliance on consumers as watch dogs.