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According to the RSPCA, the rise of social media has emboldened acts of animal cruelty like never before. Short of legislative changes, the people I spoke to believe they’re facing a visceral, losing battle.
Trigger warning: Please be aware that this article contains detailed descriptions of animal cruelty that some people may find disturbing.
“Animals have nothing but love and kindness to give to humans. They don’t judge and are not malicious or cruel. So the disgust we feel when viewing these videos depicting animal cruelty, or reading about them, is almost universal,” says long-time RSPCA prosecutor Tracey Jackson.
Despite all the terrible things I’ve reported on over nearly two decades as a journalist, animal cruelty on social media is right up there in terms of difficulty. The truth is, I can barely read about the case studies—let alone watch the actual videos of kittens being trampled to death with high heels or a possum dying a slow, torturous death as she’s run over repeatedly and purposefully by a car.
I confess to Tracey that physical repulsion has led me to avoid writing the story for nearly 18 months. She’s unsurprised, explaining that the community feels exactly the same way: “Whenever people post animal cruelty on social media it’s almost guaranteed that someone will find it offensive enough to report to RSPCA.”
Tracey Jackson has had her role with the RSPCA in Queensland for nine years. She is a solicitor and previously worked as a police officer.
“When I was a police officer I was working as a detective in child protection work,” Tracey says. “I used to say, when I went to RSPCA, I was knocking on the same doors, just for different reasons.”
“I’m much happier being involved and being able to do something about it… I think I would feel worse if I were powerless and watching from the outside.”
“If people tend to be neglectful of their animals, they tend to also be neglectful of other dependent children,” Tracey says. “If they tend to be cruel or violent with animals, then they tend to be the same way with people.”
One of the stories Tracey helped prosecute a few years back involved two young Brisbane men—Hunter Lawrence Jonasen and Callum Gibson McKenzie. The pair tortured a possum on Christmas Day and posted the video to Snapchat. At the time of the offence, Jonasen could be heard in the video “jeering and cheering”.
Jonasen served out most of his 12-month probation but, a month before it was due to expire the 18-year-old punched a stranger in the face outside a nightclub with such force that part of the victim’s lip was missing.
During his sentencing, The Brisbane Times reported Magistrate Sheryl Cornack commenting that studies showed young men who were cruel to animals subsequently went on to hurt other people. She suggested Jonasen was on a “trajectory” and needed psychiatric help.
This sentiment is echoed in a comprehensive booklet published by the US National District Attorneys Association in 2014 titled Understanding the Link between Violence to Animals and People.
The document’s author, former prosecuting attorney Allie Phillips, writes:
The Link between violence to people and violence to animals is well documented by research, both nationally and internationally.
In its simplest form: violence to animals is a predictor that the abuser may become violent to people, and vice versa. Abuse is abuse no matter what the form or whom the victim…When someone harms an animal, the important question to ask is, ‘Who will be next?’
Tracey’s job is unfathomable to most of us; she goes after the people in our community who harm animals.
In reality what this means is that as part of their investigative work, Tracey and her team have to repeatedly view video footage—posted to social media services like YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook Live—of the pain and suffering being inflicted on those creatures by humans—the same videos I’m unable to watch at all.
“I’m much happier being involved and being able to do something about it,” Tracey says. “I think I would feel even worse if I were powerless and watching from the outside.”
Although the RSPCA doesn’t collect data based on whether there’s a social media element to the investigation, Tracey says, “there is no doubt that animal cruelty on social media has impacted on our prosecution numbers.”
In the 2016/2017 year, RSPCA Queensland finalised 35 animal cruelty prosecutions. The following finalised year, that number jumped to 75. This year there will be well over 180 animal cruelty cases brought to court in that state.
“Our cruelty complaints investigations spiked a couple of years ago and there hasn’t been any decline since then—we do almost 20,000 jobs per year.
“There are jobs that once would have been investigated and not prosecuted due to a lack of evidence, and now, with video and social media evidence, we are prosecuting those matters.”
To this end, RSPCA Queensland now has its own Digital Intelligence Officer, who works purely on social media and investigating complaints received via social media.
“It’s not always just social media—it’s the prevalence of phones cameras in our communities now. People record everything,” Tracey says.
“If people tend to be neglectful of animals, they tend to also be neglectful of other dependent children… If they tend to be cruel or violent with animals, they tend to be the same way with people.”
While the prevalence of devices and social media may seem to help the RSPCA, it’s not all good news.
Although there have always been members of the community who will harm animals, Tracey believes some perpetrators find the notion of an online audience alluring.
“You’ve got the who do it live and obviously you’ve got to think that their motivation is to shock by doing this live, so that probably wouldn’t happen unless they had the forum to do that,” she says.
In a later email, she adds, “it certainly feels like we get more of these ‘shock value’ reports coming through.”
From Tracey’s standpoint, she believes social media companies have plenty to answer for. She claims on the platforms, “there are no rules, there are no boundaries, and there is usually anonymity” so perpetrators can effectively do as they wish.
According to Tracey, social media companies “…should be responsible for policing this to a certain extent because it’s all happening as part of their wealth generation.” She further states platforms have the resources to do this.
An ongoing issue for law enforcement around the country is getting relevant evidence from social media companies to progress their investigations (see the Northern Territory Police submission).
Tracey says the RSPCA faces the same challenge and gives the possum torture investigation as an example. For nine months, she says, they attempted to get the video: “We got nowhere trying to just get one video that Snapchat had within their possession.”
Reflecting on this Tracey believes social media companies should be compelled by law to hand over information like this.
“They could certainly be compelled by law to cough up information if the Government were to decide to legislate in that way.”
In response to detailed questions about how effectively social media platforms deal with animal cruelty videos, Nicole Buskiewicz, Managing Director of the Digital Industry Group—whose members include Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram, Microsoft, Oath and Twitter—sent the following statement:
The Digital Industry Group and its members are strongly opposed to animal cruelty, and prohibit the sharing of such images.
Our members assist law enforcement authorities investigating individuals committing animal cruelty by responding to valid legal requests for user information, and employ swift takedown procedures when they become aware of offending content being shared on their platforms.”
(Note that Snapchat is not a member of the Digital industry Group and did not respond to my emails requesting comment.)
In an attempt to hear from the perpetrators and dissect their possible motivations for this behaviour, I contacted both young men involved in the possum torture incident via phone, Facebook and snail mail. Neither of them replied.
Tyrike Richardson is a young man from Staten Island in the US. He was convicted of torturing his neighbour’s cat last year on Facebook Live and received a jail term for it. In response to my request for an interview—anonymously if necessary—his first Facebook message to me was: “Suck a dick and die.”
He went on to claim he’d been to jail because of people like me (I’m assuming he meant journalists). When I responded that on the contrary, he’d been to jail for doing something wrong, Tyrike said he’d talk to me as long as there were no cameras. However, he blocked my subsequent messages leading me to conclude he changed his mind.
At the time of his court hearing Gillian Kress, Tyrike’s attorney, was quoted in the local media saying:
Due to the nature of the allegations this is an emotional subject for many people but there is a lot more to this story than has been sensationalised in the press.
Our investigations are ongoing and have revealed the true story which will come out in due time. I would just ask that the public keep an open mind and have patience.
After my interactions with him, I suggest it might be a long wait.
Another Queensland man, 19-year-old Sam Conroy, was videoed throwing a cat in 2018. Like Tyrike, he agreed to talk to me for the story. “Like I’ve said, I’m not hiding,” he stated over Facebook messenger. At the time of his offence, Sam took the unusual step of publicly admitting to, and apologising for, hurting the cat. This struck me as a brave step given the community’s disgust. Yet even still, neither of these two men were prepared to face my questions about their actions. When the time for my interview with Sam rolled around, he ghosted me.
Meanwhile, the ABC reported Matthew Clement Maloney from Albion in Brisbane, who filmed himself biting off a rat’s head and posted it on Facebook, told the media he was remorseful. But on the other hand, also claimed his actions weren’t “that bad”.
Despite the pain suffered by the animal and documented by the RSPCA, Maloney reportedly stated to media outside the court after pleading guilty to one count of animal cruelty, “there’s a lot of worse stuff you could have done. Buy rat poison, all that stuff, rat traps”.
Also on The Big Smoke
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During evidence given to Senate hearings into cyberbullying last year, Federal eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant called for “safety by design” on social media platforms. In other words, she suggests platforms are engineered to be safe—and not retrofitted later when the damage is done.
“When Facebook Live went live, it took about a dozen murders, suicides and rapes on Facebook Live for them to say, ‘We’re going to hire 3,000 moderators,’ yet Periscope and Meerkat had been out in the market for some time, so could have reasonably anticipated that there would be some safety issues requiring moderation,” Ms Inman Grant told the Senate hearings.
A Facebook spokesperson responded to this criticism by saying, “All new features—including Facebook Live—go through rigorous internal review involving specialist privacy, safety and security teams. These specialist teams also seek input and guidance from external experts on a regular basis to inform the development and evolution of our features.
“In addition, over the course of this year, we are doubling our safety, security and content review teams to 20,000 as part of the larger company investment in this space.”
Facebook, like most other social media platforms, has strict policies against graphic violence. But this doesn’t mean the public always adheres to them.