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#SaveTheWildlife #ButDontMakeThingsWorse

Getting out the word about endangered species helps conservation efforts, but could doing it on social media put them at more risk?


Social media can be a great way to spread a message to a wide audience, but when it comes to raising awareness about wildlife conservation, there may be as many risks as there are benefits. A new study from Carleton University has investigated the impacts of social media on conservation efforts, finding that it can help — as long as it’s used responsibly.

The study was co-led by Johanna Bergman, a PhD candidate, Rachel Buxton, an assistant professor and conservation scientist, and Hsien-Yung Lin, a postdoctoral fellow, all at Carleton University. It was published in FACETS.

Conservation efforts are going viral

Over the past few years, social media has become an increasingly popular way to spread awareness about environmental campaigns. It’s also become a tool used by researchers in their own conservation efforts. For example, some scientists have started using geotagged photos of endangered species to track them over time.

At the same time, posting about endangered species on social media can also encourage potentially harmful behaviour. For example, tourists seeking their own versions of viral selfies with endangered animals can put those animals at risk by venturing too far into their habitats.

With little research available on the long-term outcomes of social media on endangered species, the researchers behind the study decided to investigate how it had helped — or, potentially, hindered — conservation efforts.

To do this, they carried out a literature review. The team gathered more than a hundred scientific papers which had mentioned social media in the context of wildlife conservation, as well as news articles from the past few years which covered environmental social media campaigns. They then determined how social media had helped or harmed wildlife conservation in each example.

A chart summarizing the risks and benefits of social media on wildlife conservation efforts.
A chart summarizing the risks and benefits of social media on wildlife conservation efforts. Credit: Bergman et al. 2022.

Encouragingly, the researchers found that there were many examples of ways in which social media had helped. The first of these was simply raising awareness: for example, viral videos showing turtles trapped in plastic led to increased awareness and support for anti-plastic movements. The authors also found several examples of social media campaigns which had gone on to impact governmental policies.

Social media marketing campaigns by conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund also led to increased conservation funding.

On the other hand, the authors also identified a number of examples where social media awareness was actually harmful to conservation efforts. While geotagging photos of endangered species can help scientists in their studies, for example it can also encourage the general public to encroach upon these species’ habitats.

The authors also describe how fake news and misinformation can easily spread on social media, further harming conservation efforts. They point to the example of goldenrod honey, which has gone viral on social media as a so-called superfood, but which is produced by invasive bees. The popularity of this honey on social media has led to beekeepers cultivating it in non-native regions.

Social media is a powerful tool — if used responsibly

The authors conclude that there are benefits to using social media in conservation efforts, but stress that it must be used responsibly. They recommend that NGOs encourage social media users to only share photos of wildlife from a distance, without disturbing their habitats.

They also recommend that social media platforms remove or flag images which promote harmful behaviour. Instagram is one platform that has committed to doing this: when users search for hashtags that encourage harmful behaviour (for example, #KoalaSelfie) they’re now sent a pop-up notification describing the risks of getting too close to endangered species.

A warning message sent to Instagram users who attempt to search for the #KoalaSelfie hashtag. The text reads: "Protect Wildlife on Instagram. Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram. You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment."
A warning message sent to Instagram users who attempt to search for the #KoalaSelfie hashtag.

Conservation scientists should also be mindful of describing these risks in their own social media posts. While the video of a scientist rescuing a turtle from a plastic straw did help the anti-plastic movement, it’s important that viewers are made aware that only professionals should be attempting that sort of rescue. Even good intentions may lead to harmful outcomes for endangered species.

“[W]e stress the power of individual action to support conservation using social media,” the authors say.

“In today’s rapidly changing world, social media presents a unique framework that, if used appropriately, can unify our voices and offer an opportunity to mobilize social change for global biodiversity conservation.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.