Social media activism, much like the tried and trusted activism of ye olde times, is the vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change but via social media as a medium. So you wouldn’t think it would be any kind of challenge to keep people interested in wildlife conservation. Everybody loves animals, right? To an extent, yes, and nowhere is that more evident than on the Internet, but studies have shown that when an issue doesn’t directly affect people, they immediately begin to engage less with it. Unfortunately, even when images of de-horned rhinos or poached elephants have been shared thousands of times, it hasn’t made them any less endangered.
Nonetheless, with the way animal imagery does trend so remarkably easily, there is a massive amount of opportunities for raised awareness about conservation. Most of the time when such content does take off, it’s via a moral imperative. That is that often the images and videos that go viral are so shocking that you almost can’t help but engage, because they’ll end up forever etched in your head either way. However, the perpetual assault of 24/7 social media can reinforce reactionary opinions with little regard for the facts. What we often don’t realise is how cleverly the language used in posts of this content aids in jumping to conclusions. Fortunately, by taking the time to pursue some research provides a better understanding of the crux of the matter in question.
While not every online post is designed solely to elicit a reaction, it can be said that some beliefs are often predetermined by social media’s ability to tell us what to think rather than what we should be thinking about. It has effectively created a world where it’s convenient to choose a side based on short sound bites or brief summaries, which despite possibly containing truth, may severely lack in substance. The result is a loss of objective thinking and productive conversation.
The funny thing with wildlife imagery going viral is that in many cases it’s far from deliberate. Trophy hunter Rebecca Francis is one of many people to have received a massive online backlash after posting pictures of herself next to her most recent kills in Africa. In this case, Ricky Gervais, who has since cultivated a reputation as an outspoken online animal rights activist, aided the spread. The trouble with that kind of thing is that the shock often stops at the reactionary phase and moves no further, people might share the post, add an exasperated comment, but then they’ll move on.
So the question becomes, how do wildlife foundations use social media in a way that moves people from reaction to action? There are some examples out there that could provide the answer. Mary Lee, the great white shark is a small, but good example. First tagged (we’re talking about a GPS device here, not Instagram) in 2012 by Ocearch, she is continually tracked and her location is updated using a Twitter account. It might not get people off their couches and out in the streets campaigning for shark conservation, but it’s got a good chance of planting it in their minds.
To rein it in back home to Africa, rhino poaching has escalated in recent years with record numbers of rhino being killed across Africa for their horns. Recently, various new technologies have been tested and employed in an attempt to combat wildlife crime. Drones, satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis, hidden cameras, GPS location devices and apps are all being implemented to try and predict, locate, track and catch poachers to reduce the number of animals being killed for the illegal wildlife trade. Drones, in particular, have been receiving increased press attention as superhero to end the current rhino-poaching crisis. But how effective are they?
Conservationists now scan live video from a thermal-imaging camera attached to a drone, looking for heat signatures of poachers stalking through the bush to kill rhinos. The drone, which resembles a model airplane, flies several kilometres from a vehicle where an operator toggles a customized video-gaming control, zooming and swivelling the craft’s camera. However, one criticism towards the latest technology is the fact that poachers could, for example, seek vegetation cover to try to avoid being spotted by drones or use informants to monitor drone teams and learn when the skies are clear.
In the United States social media “technology” has proven very successful in many cases and with live streaming taking off the way it is at the moment, they’re probably only going to gain more traction. Eagles, bears (polar and grizzly), sharks, wolves, dolphins, penguins, pandas and all manner of other animals are tracked by 24 hour live feeds and some amazing stories have emanated from them. For example, the ‘Bearcam’ which operated at Kamati National Park in Alaska managed to catch live images of a bear cub being adopted by a new parent, an extremely rare and fascinating phenomenon that would have passed by unnoticed, had people not been tuned in.
This kind of active engagement is the kind of thing that could well help convince people that they need to do more to support wildlife conservation. Keeping direct track of endangered species and using live streams and social media profiles to publicise that tracking might not be a guarantee of maintained interest, but it would likely increase the chances.
Activism is the only thing that will help move the world further towards saving the millions of species that are gradually disappearing, as well as taking more action against deforestation, poaching and pollution. People love animals, and if the amount of engagement animal-related posts get online could be counterbalanced with active campaigning, who knows how much good could be done. And since social media content alone can’t be trusted nowadays, the onus is on us not only to do our homework, but also likewise maintain our objectivity in order to maintain healthy and civil conversations, even and especially when we disagree. We would learn a lot from one another and hopefully originate new and innovative ways of protecting the wildlife and sustaining the wilderness.