On October 2nd, New Tang Dynasty Television, a broadcaster affiliated with the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, posted a Facebook video of a woman rescuing a baby shark stranded on the bank. Next to the video was a link to subscribe The epoch times, a newspaper affiliated with Falun Gong promoting anti-Chinese and right-wing conspiracies. The post garnered 33,000 likes, comments and shares.
The website of Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic doctor who researchers say is a major online circulator of coronavirus misinformation, regularly posts about cute animals that generate tens or even hundreds of thousands of interactions on Facebook. Stories include “Kittens and Chicks Sleep So Sweetly Together” and “Why Orange Cats Can Be Different from Other Cats,” written by Dr. Karen Becker, a veterinarian.
And Western Journal, a right-wing publication that has published unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of using hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 and spread falsehoods about fraud in the 2020 presidential election, owns Liftable Animals, a popular Facebook page. Liftable Animals publishes stories from the main Western Journal website in addition to stories about golden retrievers and giraffes.
Videos and GIFs of cute animals – usually cats – have been online for almost as long as the internet has been around. Many of the animals became famous: Keyboard Cat, Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, and Nyan Cat, to name a few.
Now it is becoming increasingly clear how widespread the old school internet trick is being used by people and organizations that post incorrect information on the internet, misinformation researchers say.
The posts with the animals do not directly disseminate false information. But they can attract a huge audience that can be directed to a publication or website that spreads false information about election fraud, unproven coronavirus cures, and other baseless conspiracy theories unrelated to the videos. Sometimes users who follow a feed of cute animals on Facebook are unknowingly signed up as subscribers to misleading posts from the same publisher.
Melissa Ryan, executive director of Card Strategies, a consultancy researching disinformation, said this type of “engagement bait” helped misinformation actors generate clicks on their pages, which can help them get better known in user feeds in the future. That notoriety can lead a wider audience to find content with inaccurate or misleading information, she said.
“The strategy works because the platforms continue to reward engagement above everything else,” said Ms. Ryan, “even if that engagement comes from” publications that also post false or misleading content.
Perhaps no organization is using the tactic as vigorously as Epoch Media, the parent company of The Epoch Times. According to an analysis by the New York Times, Epoch Media posted videos of cute animals in 12,062 posts on its 103 Facebook pages last year. These posts, which contain links to other Epoch Media websites, received nearly four billion views. Trending World, one of Epoch’s Facebook pages, was the platform’s 15th most popular page in the US between July and September.
A video posted on the Epoch Times’ Taiwan page last month shows a close-up of a golden retriever while a woman tries unsuccessfully to pry an apple from its mouth. It’s got over 20,000 likes, shares and comments on Facebook. Another post on Trending World’s Facebook page features a broadly grinning seal with a family posing for a photo at a Sea World resort. the Video has 12 million views.
Epoch Media did not respond to a request for comment.
“DR. Becker is a veterinarian, her articles are about pets,” said an email from Dr. Mercola’s PR team not surprised. “
The viral animal videos often come from places like Jukin media and ViralHog. Companies identify extremely shareable videos and license agreements with the people who created them. After securing the rights to the videos, Jukin Media and ViralHog license the clips to other media companies, giving the original creator a portion of the profit.
Mike Skogmo, Jukin Media’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, said his company has a licensing agreement with New Tang Dynasty Television, the Falun Gong-affiliated broadcaster.
“Jukin has licensing agreements with hundreds of publishers around the world, across the political spectrum and on a range of subjects, in accordance with guidelines that protect the creators of the works in our library,” he said in a statement.
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When asked if the company had assessed whether their clips were being used as engagement bait to create misinformation in the licensing deals, Mr Skogmo said Jukin had nothing more to add.
“Once someone licenses our raw content, it is up to them what they do with it,” said Ryan Bartholomew, founder of ViralHog. “ViralHog does not endorse or contradict any reasons or goals – it would be outside of our business scope.”
The use of animal videos is puzzling tech platforms like Facebook as the animal posts themselves do not contain any misinformation. Facebook banned advertising from Epoch Media when the network has violated its political advertising guidelines, and it has destroyed hundreds of Epoch Media-related accounts last year when it discovered that the accounts had violated its “coordinated inauthentic behavior” policy.
“We have already initiated several enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups,” said Drew Pusateri, a Facebook spokesman. “If we find them doing fraudulent activities in the future, we will continue to enforce them.” The company did not comment on the tactic of using cute animals to spread misinformation.
Rachel E. Moran, a researcher at the University of Washington who investigates online misinformation, said it was unclear how often the animal videos led people to misinformation. However, posting them is still a popular tactic because of its low risk of breaking a platform’s rules.
“Pictures of cute animals and videos of healthy moments are the bread and butter of social media and definitely won’t conflict with algorithmic content moderation detection,” said Ms. Moran.
“People still use it every day,” she said.
Jacob silver Research contributed.