Animal causes and social media seem to be made for each other.
That, at least, is the conclusion of two researchers from the animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They recently presented a study at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science showing that Americans' moral support for using animals in medical testing has declined by 12 percent since 2001.
Most significant, they say, their study points to a huge drop in support for such testing among people ages 18 to 29. A whopping 54 percent of them told pollsters in 2013 that animal testing was morally wrong, versus only 31 percent in 2001.
"That's just an unprecedented increase," says Justin Goodman, a director at PETA and one of the researchers. "And we think it's linked to Internet use. It's the source for news and information, especially for young people."
Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, is skeptical about PETA's claims that the Internet is fueling a change in attitudes toward medical testing with animals or that there's been a pronounced drop in young people's support for such testing.
"While there has been a general trend toward less support of animal research...it has been slow and steady—not what would be predicted if anti-animal-research beliefs were 'going viral' among young people," Herzog says.
He suspects the data actually show that people in a particular age group are in general concerned about this issue but become less opposed as they age and have children (who may get ill and require medical treatments developed through animal research).
"The overall percentage of Americans opposed [to medical testing with animals] is 40 percent, the same as it was five or six years ago," he says.
Although Justin Goodman can't prove his hunch, he's not alone in noticing the public's love affair with animal advocacy organizations—and simply animals—on the Internet.
In 2011 a team from craigconnects, a kind of Internet-promo site started by Craig Newmark of craigslist.org, looked at which nonprofit groups used social media most effectively, in a study titled "Who Rules Social Media?"
It was no contest: Animal-minded groups beat out every other nonprofit, including those focused on aid for children, disaster relief, and veterans' concerns. Animals trumped the others in every category the craigconnects team examined in their study, from "Look Who's Talking" to "But Who's Talking Back?" to "Whose Words Are Having the Most Impact?"
If that study doesn't convince you of the animal organizations' online power, take a look at the numbers: PETA has more than two million followers on Facebook and almost half a million on Twitter, while UNICEF USA, a leading children's advocacy nonprofit, has 422,000 and 163,000 respectively.
The contrast is even more striking when PETA squares off against an organization like the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR), which attempts to explain why medical testing on animals is sometimes necessary. It has but 130,000 Facebook pals, and 1,700 Twitter adherents.
And PETA is only one animal advocacy organization.
Animals: A Soaring Interest
Other animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society and the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also have chest-thumping numbers on both social sites. They are all also busy on Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, and Google+.
So why do so many of us flock to the sites of the furred and feathered?
It's partly the times. In the past few years our interest in animals—who they are, how their minds work, what they feel—has soared.
"There's been a shift on animal issues," says Kerry Lauerman, the former editor of Salon and one of the co-founders of the all-animal-news website The Dodo, which was launched in mid-January and within weeks had more than a million subscribers.
"You can see it in things like the New York Times list of most emailed stories," Lauerman says. "These days animals are often the top story."
And these are not just cute critter tales, he notes. More often, they're about such things as scientists discovering, via brain scans, emotions in dogs that are similar to ours. Or researchers puzzling over empathetic behaviors in rats and elephants.
"These stories push different buttons in people," Lauerman says. "The discovery that animals are able to think in some way makes people deeply uncomfortable. At the same time, they really want to understand them, to know them."
And scientists working in animal cognition are delivering: Hardly a week goes by without a new discovery or insight into the inner workings of some creature's mind.
The Happy-Sad Equation
Intellectual curiosity may be driving people to the animal sites. But the content must keep them there—and keep them coming back.
Theoretically this requires following a fairly simple equation, says James Jasper, a scholar of social movements at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. "You juxtapose two emotional batteries: one negative, one positive," he says. "So you show a photo of a happy animal, like a playful puppy, and close to it, you show one of an unhappy, tortured animal."
People generally respond with outrage to the second image. Together, the two images spark hope for change. "It works: The two together really motivate people," Jasper says.
PETA's Goodman agrees, noting that the group's website currently shows a happy dog next to a banner, "Spay-a-Thon a Huge Success," followed by an image of a tiger cub biting the bars of its cage headlined, "10 Reasons Not to Attend the Circus."
Double Trouble's Sad Tale
PETA employed this technique when it introduced its followers to a cat named Double Trouble in 2012. She was being used in sound experiments at the University of Wisconsin and had been intentionally deafened and outfitted with a thick metal bar to hold her head still during tests.
"Yes, the photos are graphic, but they're also incredibly sad," Goodman says. "And people feel that. It makes them want to do something, to channel that emotion into doing something positive."
PETA provides the means: a button to click or a petition to sign. "That's all it takes, and you can help that animal. Your click, your signature matters."
More than 200,000 people signed a petition urging the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of Wisconsin to end the research, and Double Trouble's misery. Her image and story were seen and shared millions of times via social media, Goodman says.
In the end, the NIH requested that the invasive aspects of the project be stopped until they would be investigated. Following the investigation, the study was allowed to resume. In the meantime, Double Trouble had been euthanized after suffering from an infection. Other cats are now being used for similar tests, and PETA continues its campaign against them.
Double Trouble's story illustrates another point: Particularly affecting tales can easily and quickly go viral.
"Emotional stories about the way we treat animals—such as the dolphin slaughter at Taiji or the death of Marius the giraffe—just explode on the Internet, in a way that other stories don't," Lauerman says.
That's partly because of the passions they arouse and because social media makes it easy to exchange opinions.
You Are There!
Viewers may also have the sensation that the event is happening in real time, Lauerman says. "It was especially true with the dolphin hunt at Taiji, which was actually happening every day. If you were watching and sending tweets or passing on messages, it was as if you were participating, even if you weren't there. In that kind of situation, you get the feeling that your reaction, your opinion may count."
Just by sitting at their keyboards clicking buttons, e-signing petitions, and passing on messages, people have discovered that they can help animals. Every animal advocacy group I spoke to remarked on how its organization has grown or changed because of the rise of social media.
"It's made advocacy as simple as a clicked button," says Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, which works on behalf of farm animals. Through social media, he adds, the organization is able to "reach into communities that would otherwise have been closed to us." Members tell friends, and friends tell family, and soon people across the country are sharing stories about pigs that play like dogs, or chickens with the curiosity of cats.
Social media's long arm also gives animal rights groups far more clout than they had in the past.
Maris Sidenstecker, the co-founder of Save the Whales, which works to free cetaceans in captivity, knew exactly what to do when a Facebook follower sent news about a baby pilot whale that was tied by its tail to a dock at a Jamaican resort.
From the organization's headquarters in California, she threatened the owner: "If you don't let it go, I'm posting this on Facebook right now." He agreed, and she contacted Jamaican wildlife officials to make sure the owner carried out his promise.
"The Internet gives you leverage, something we never really had before," she says.
Via social media, public shaming awaits those who tie up helpless baby whales, or win the chance to kill a hapless rhinoceros, or take part in coyote-killing contests.
Will the proliferation of cameras, e-petitions, and Facebook posts finally force us to treat animals better? Will animals gain more rights? Will we all become vegetarians and insist that no animal—even a rat—be used in medical testing?
Friending Animals: Today's Kids
Justin Goodman of PETA is decidedly optimistic.. He thinks the data reflect a real societal change, and the high percentage of young people opposed to animals being used in biomedical research gives him hope that a "cultural shift" is under way.
"As younger people move into positions where they're making policy," Goodman says, "they'll bring their attitudes with them. We see this change coming; it is closer than ever."