• Range Writing

New paper proposes to whitewash, censor messaging about wildlife:

Your social media posts are being studied by wildlife researchers

The rapid growth in social media has resulted in a new field of wildlife conservation inquiry. Called “conservation culturomics,” researchers are analyzing digital data from social media platforms to provide insights on human-nature interactions. The increase in the number of papers published in scientific journals that use this technique has even generated discussion of data privacy concerns since social media users do not know their public posts, photos, videos, likes, and comments are being scrutinized.

While I’ve read numerous papers that have attempted to use social media posts to measure public attitudes toward wildlife, I recently stumbled upon the platform dedicated to this new field of inquiry, hosted by the Society for Conservation Biology.

How does a western Wyoming sheepherder who lives in large carnivore country stumble upon a new field of scientific inquiry? A new paper published in the journal Nature cited a scientific paper about wolf and grizzly bear depredation on cattle in the Upper Green River region in which I was a co-author.

The new paper that cited my research is called “Framing of visual content shown on popular social media may affect viewers’ attitudes to threatened species,” written by researchers based in Argentina. I have no problem with the way in which my paper was cited, but the new paper should raise alarm about how scientists want to manipulate the sharing of information about wildlife species and possible human-wildlife conflicts.


The authors of the new paper classified videos about vultures and mammalian predators that were posted to YouTube, and classified them as “negative” or “positive.” They explained that negatively framed videos of vultures and mammalian predators had titles or descriptions that included words such as "predation" or “killing,” as well as videos that suggested that vultures may eat live animals (e.g., calves, lambs) instead of carrion, or videos edited to emphasize vultures injuring or intimidating livestock when still alive.”

In contrast, according to the authors, “positively framed videos did not use words such as "predation" or “killing” in their titles or descriptions; they either referred to vultures eating carrion and not live animals, or were edited to emphasize the positive role of these birds in the ecosystem (e.g., cleaning carcasses).”

{To get to their recommendations, we must disregard that factual information (as in the fact that predators by nature do kill other animals, and that vultures do sometimes kill animals in addition to scavenging) were automatically classified as negative, rather than simply a neutral or factual statement.}


An interesting twist in this research was its use of psychological distance. The paper noted, “messages framed with close psychological distance tend to be highly effective; when an object is perceived as close it tends to be perceived in more concrete way, whereas when the object is perceived as distant it tends to be construed more abstractly. In other words, psychological distance is reduced when the framing of a message emphasizes a problem which will affect people like the viewers themselves.”

Bingo. That’s why videos and posts used by environmental groups to promote wolf restoration are so successful: wolves are construed as an abstract by the majority of the public. But the wolves that share our range here in western Wyoming are not an abstract to those who live alongside them. That’s why I often post to social media about these individual predators, and the conflicts and interactions our family has with them.

According to the paper, “Videos with close psychological distance were more likely to generate comments proposing a lethal strategy for vultures and mammalian predators.”

So as we narrow the psychological distance that takes wolves from being an abstract to an actual physical presence, support for lethal control in response to conflicts increases.

The Argentina researchers concluded: “Our results showed that the way video content is framed could influence tolerance toward wildlife species. Negatively framed content could affect the viewer’s perception, encouraging aggressive reactions towards animals, some of which may be threatened species. Most of the videos analyzed show no clear evidence of livestock being attacked by scavenger birds; however, the video frame infers that the attack really happened, which makes the video potential fake news, and may generate negative consequences for species conservation.”

Okay, whatever on the potential fake news comment. The authors note that vultures “are rarely involved in predation events: predation events by obligate and facultative scavenger birds together represent only 0.1% of the total sheep production in northwestern Argentine Patagonia,” to suggest “Greater caution is required in the presentation of information involving threatened species in conflict with humans, so as not to generate negative consequences.”

The “only 0.1%” statistic used by the authors is a method of placing vulture depredation on sheep in the abstract – but for livestock producers experiencing the depredations, the damage is concrete. It’s that distancing thing.

The authors propose to use the close psychological distance framing only for positive messaging about wildlife, and to not use testimonies from people who experience loss due to wild animal depredations.

The authors lament: “The videos analyzed show how viewers´ comments are more negative toward vultures and mammalian predators when they see a person who is describing the loss of their livestock or claiming damages from the authorities for their losses (close psychological distance), than when they see only the interaction between these animals and livestock, without testimonies (distant psychological distance). The media probably find that these videos attract viewers, since they cause social alarm and curiosity. However, these messages may intensify conflicts that could impact negatively on threatened species such as vultures, increasing threats of action like poisoning or persecution. In this sense, the use of close psychological distance framing may be a good strategy for the implementation of conservation measures that promote positive perception of wildlife species. For instance, videos could be shown of people who have obtained benefits from wildlife (e.g., vultures cleaning dead animals produced by livestock production) instead of showing people who have lost livestock.”

The strategy proposed by the authors is known as whitewashing: deliberately attempting to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts about someone or something.

Policing Thought?

The really striking part of this new research paper is its recommendations. The authors propose “the incorporation of a complaint category that enables social media users to report uploaded information or frames involving wildlife species that could negatively affect their conservation.”

The authors conclude: “There is a need for greater care in the way messages about wildlife species are presented, especially messages about threatened species, since they could have negative consequences for their conservation. Taking regulatory action in the event of inaccurate messages about wildlife, without violating the freedom of expression, would help to improve conservation action for diverse wildlife species.”

Let that sit for a minute: The authors propose “taking regulatory action in the event of inaccurate messages about wildlife…”

My view is that perhaps the widespread public messaging promoted by such wildlife professionals through unrelentingly positive framing leads to an unrealistic view of nature. The Disneyesque view of wild animals, and whitewashing of conflicts, continues to be promoted by some wildlife professionals and advocates, as this new conservation culturomics papers confirms.

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