Who makes the videos?
Most of the uploaded videos across the various channels appear to be shot in Southeast Asia, likely in Cambodia, according to Jackel and other animal researchers. Khmer, Cambodia’s main language, is often spoken in the videos, the snakes featured are species indigenous to the region, and the vegetation looks right, they say.
Jobs are scarce in Cambodia’s countryside, home to 90 percent of the nation’s poorest people. Moreover, tourism, manufacturing, and construction—which account for 40 percent of jobs—have been drastically curtailed during the pandemic.
“Many people in places like Cambodia and Vietnam have pet reptiles or breed them for meat and other purposes like we do with chickens,” says Natusch, who reviewed some of the videos for National Geographic. “These animals look like they are kept in cages most of the time in the local village.”
Bellingcat, an open-source investigation website, examined more than a dozen videos on one of the most prolific fake animal rescue channels for National Geographic. The group looked for environmental cues to help identify the likely locations where the videos were made.
Foeke Postma, a Bellingcat investigator and trainer, says he suspects that “based on some details in the videos and mountain ranges,” they were made near Tuk Meas Khang Lech, a rural area in the southern part of Cambodia. But he couldn’t pinpoint where. “The rural nature of these videos will make it difficult to track them or find exact locations,” he says.
Where the videos are filmed matters for people trying to halt the exploitation, Jackel says. “That’s the only way local law enforcement can do anything about it.” It’s also important to find out who owns the channels that feature the videos, she says. They’re the people receiving payment from Google if the channels are monetised, and who may get some video notoriety. “Obviously people want attention, and that can be a very powerful draw,” Jackel says. “Even if they aren’t profiting from it, there’s still a danger—you can be popular on YouTube if you torture animals.”
It’s unlikely that those channel owners are based in Cambodia, which isn’t listed as an eligible country for YouTube’s ad partnership agreements.
Only Google and the YouTube channel account owner know what country a channel is registered in for payment and tax purposes, says Urgo, of Social Blade. The “about” page, which is visible on each channel, may not reflect where the videos are being shot: Someone who lists a channel in the U.S., say, could post videos from anywhere.
YouTube said in a statement that the channel reviewed by Bellingcat had not been monetised.
What can be done to help
The responsibility to report problematic videos should not fall on viewers, Jackel says. “It is YouTube’s obligation to ensure that its platform is not promoting animal cruelty and that all abusive content is removed.”
Still, viewers should report what they think are cruel, fake videos to YouTube, and they shouldn’t share them, she says. To report a video, users should click “report” in the bottom right corner of the video, select that it’s “violent or repulsive content,” and choose the option “animal abuse.”
Putting pressure on advertisers could help too, Jackel and others say. Major brands such as PepsiCo, Walmart, and Starbucks pulled their YouTube ads in 2017 after the Wall Street Journal found that they were placed alongside videos that promoted hate speech. The boycotts prompted YouTube to announce its intention to ramp up enforcement. The platform updated its hate speech and harassment policies in 2019—prohibiting videos that allege a group is superior to others in order to justify discrimination.
Policing problematic content is likely a “never-ending war” for YouTube, the Animal Welfare Institute’s Schubert says. But it’s still the responsibility of social media companies to develop algorithms to enforce their own guidelines and to hire enough people to monitor animal abuse videos and take them down as quickly as possible.
YouTube could use programs to scan and recognise threatened or endangered species in animal videos and create automatic notifications about the animals’ level of endangerment, with contextual information about animal exploitation, Chaber says. Viewers should see the notifications before they can watch the videos, she says. The platform already has adopted a similar approach with hoax videos.
When users search YouTube for topics known to be prone to misinformation, warning or educational panels pop up. If a user searches for “coronavirus,” for example, an information panel saying “learn more” links to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID website. The box is also visible at the bottom of the individual listed videos. Something like this could be done with animal videos, Chaber says.
But not everyone agrees that warning notices would help. Jackel says she’s wary of using this kind of intervention for fake animal rescues because it could add a layer of novelty to sharing them or watching them. It also puts the focus on saying these videos are deceptive rather than that they abuse animals, she says.
“The most pressing issue is the violence toward animals—which should never be allowed as ‘entertainment,’ no matter how it’s labeled,” Jackel says. The focus should be on removing the videos right away. “Videos promoting animal cruelty have no place on YouTube, period.”