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Online animal cruelty content should be prohibited under new UK online safety laws

The AfA Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition has facilitated a working group of animal protection experts, who have warned that content on social media depicting animal abuse harms vulnerable adults and children, as well as animals, and should not be overlooked in government development of the new UK Online Safety bill.

The bill, which aims to protect children and vulnerable people from “illegal” or “harmful” content, will place more responsibility on social media companies to moderate and restrict such content on their platforms.

Currently, the proposed bill does not include cover content depicting abuse to animals. Animal experts warn this would be a major failing by the government, arguing such content often shows illegal acts, while also having a damaging impact on the young people who watch it.

The Asia for Animals Coalition, the Wildlife and Countryside Link, the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, the Parrot Trust, World Animal Protection, The Bader Trust and others have written to the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan MP, urging her to make amendments to the bill as it goes through the final stages of development.

Videos documented by animal experts show a wide range of animal abuses, with the worst depicting severe physical abuse and even torture. The content shows animals tied up, hit, burnt with cigarettes, crushed under heavy stones and objects, mutilated while still alive, and drowned. Some videos even show animals being sexually abused by their captors.

Polling commissioned by the RSPCA in 2018 found that 23% of schoolchildren aged 10-18 years had witnessed animal cruelty or neglect on social media, concluding that “Young children are being exposed to horrific incidents of animal suffering online in ways previous generations have simply not experienced’’.

Psychology experts have found that “there is emerging evidence that childhood exposure to maltreatment of companion animals is associated with psychopathology in childhood and adulthood’’. Children can go on to become animal abusers themselves, shown in a study published in 2018 that suggested that children who witness animal cruelty are 3–8 times more likely to abuse animals themselves. Another stated, ‘‘witnessing animal abuse normalizes the behaviour for the observer, potentially translating to a perception that such acts are socially acceptable’’.

Many social media companies do have policies prohibiting content depicting animal abuse on their platform. However, data collected by the Asia for Animals Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC) since March 2021, indicate that less than 50% of links showing animal cruelty are removed by platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok after being reported by users.

Group representative Nicola O’Brien, Lead Coordinator of the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC), said:

“Social media platforms are frankly just not doing enough to deal with the vast amount of content that perpetuates animal cruelty on their platforms. Despite having some policies prohibiting animal cruelty content on the platforms, this content is readily available to social media users. Therefore platforms need to be held to account to ensure they enforce their own policies to protect animals and users alike.”

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara is championing the call from animal experts and has formally proposed amendments to the bill to cover animal cruelty content.

Experts believe that trends similar to those fueling the rise in animal cruelty content are also leading to an increase in videos that promote the illegal wildlife trade. A recent BBC Click investigation revealed how wildlife traffickers are using social media to promote and facilitate illegal trade in endangered parrots.

Nicola continued:

“Animal cruelty is extremely distressing to witness and is believed to increase the likelihood of violent behaviours in children who witness it. To overlook animal cruelty content in the bill, which aims to protect vulnerable users, would be a major failing. The time is now to make sure this new law is truly protective.”

RSPCA data:

Studies showing the impact on children of witnessing animal abuse:

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