If you're a social media maven, you may have noticed a bloom of animal selfies over the past few years.
A baby monkey grasps a tourist's fingers at a temple in Thailand. While many wildlife tourist sites are legitimate, an Instagram campaign is highlighting how some are more sinister in the ways they promote animal selfies. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.
You know the ones I'm talking about — a friend or celebrity posing with a monkey on their trip to Thailand, or holding a koala in Australia, or bench-pressing a whale. (I kid. Please don't try to bench-press whales).
A few years ago, these photos only showed up here and there. But lately, they've really taken off — along with the popularity of selfie-friendly apps like Snapchat and Instagram. In fact, there's been nearly a 300% increase in animal selfies since 2014.
But as cute as these animal pictures are, and as empowering as it can be to take a great selfie, there's simply something rotten going on with many of them — no matter how pure the intentions are of anyone individual using the #monkeyselfie hashtag.
It turns out that many of those seemingly innocent, totally adorable images are at the end of a very dark chain of events.
So from now on, if you search certain hashtags on Instagram (like #monkeyselfie, #koalaselfie, or #tigerselfies — along with hundreds of other unannounced hashtags, according to National Geographic), you'll likely trigger a message like this:
Image from James Gaines/Instagram.
But what could be so wrong with a cute picture with an animal? Most of these images aren't exactly clear-cut cases of animal abuse (like the time a baby dolphin was accidentally killed during a mass selfie spree in Argentina).
The real problem is much more insidious — one that Instagrammers might not even realize is going on.
In many parts of the world, tour guides or hot spots might try to provide guests with the opportunity to meet some wild animals. Some might be on the level, but in others, unscrupulous guides or agencies will actually capture animals from the wild, cage them, and use drugs or cruelty to tame them.
All in the name of five seconds of hugging a sloth.
Of course, tourists don't get to see the sad part. All they're aware of is that they snapped a selfie — and possibly scored a couple hundred likes or faves.
In a way, by trying to educate its entire audience through these warnings, Instagram is acting kind of like a whistle-blower on this issue.
Wildlife protection agencies are a fan of Instagram's decision. Cassandra Koenen, who works at the nonprofit World Animal Protection, says she hopes it'll make people pause before sharing something.
“If someone's behavior is interrupted, hopefully they'll think, 'Maybe there's something more here, or maybe I shouldn't just automatically like something or forward something or repost something if Instagram is saying to me there's a problem with this photo,'" Koenen told National Geographic.
In fact, Instagram worked with agencies, such as World Animal Protection and the World Wildlife Fund, for months to make sure they got this right.
The filter will also pop up for hashtags related to the often abusive exotic wildlife trade, such as #exoticanimalsforsale. Instagram hopes this will help disrupt wildlife traffickers' ability to find buyers via social media.
Social media is a powerful tool, but one that often unwittingly enables or hosts abuse. Instagram stepping up, recognizing the role they play, and taking steps to act responsibly is huge.
Hopefully it could help inspire individual users or even other social media sites to join in.