Every day we're reminded of the wonderful things that social media can do for the animal welfare movement. Sharing photos can help reunite lost cats and dogs with their families, can facilitate the transport of orphaned puppies with little prospect of adoption to the safe haven of a no-kill shelter, and can inspire donations to deliver lifesaving medical care to pets in dire need.
However, April Fool's Day is an appropriate time for a reminder not to trust everything that comes across your news feed. Internet trolls feed on anger and outrage, and sometimes stoking the passions of animal lovers is a fire they start just to watch the world burn. One particular such troll took on the persona of an elderly Richmond woman and created a Facebook account as "Kat Tenna." Public posts from this profile were deliberately inflammatory on a variety of topics, but the ones that began to spread with a viral fever used real photos from news reports of animal cruelty and made blatant, outrageous statements of deliberate acts of cruelty.
Feeding the voracious appetite of the troll, people from all over the country began to flood animal welfare groups, law enforcement agencies and news stations in Richmond with these reports yesterday evening. The Richmond SPCA's Facebook page was bombarded with hundreds of messages, and we responded to each one to explain the hoax and how to report the fake profile to Facebook for removal, which we were notified just before midnight that Facebook had acted upon.
The messages, emails, calls to dispatchers and more all came from a good place. Genuine animal lovers, appalled by what they were seeing reached out from as far away as New Zealand to urge authorities to save a dog they believed was in danger. They were acting on what we've all learned: "If you see something, say something." And if you witness neglect or cruelty first hand, that is absolutely the right way to be programmed, to document and report mistreatment immediately. However, on the internet, a dose of skepticism is warranted and can prevent resources that can be devoted to a real animal or person in danger from being diverted in response to a hoax.
- Google's reverse image search is an amazing tool.
This was the first step in ruling out that the "Kat Tenna" claims were false. Both of the photos she claimed to be of her own dogs could be found online in posts one to five years old that were connected to real news reports.
You can find many other methods, but Google makes it incredibly simple. At images.google.com, upload the photo or provide a link to the image you want to search. The results will show you matches online. We're opting not to show the images shared by Kat Tenna here, but they were connected to a 2015 case in Oklahoma and a 2011 case in the Philippines.
- Perhaps someone else has already done the research.
Just as you would hopefully search snopes.com if something about a "news" story shared by a distant relative doesn't smell right, there are websites and pages dedicated to debunking hoaxes involving animals. One of those is Animal Abuse Known Hoaxes on Facebook (warning: this page does include screen shots of graphic and disturbing images). If you have other favorites that are reliable, share them in the comments.
- No results? It could be a valid threat.
Do your best to determine the location of the person and find the appropriate law enforcement agency to investigate animal cruelty in that locality. It can be as easy as plugging the search terms "report animal cruelty, Anytown, USA" into your favorite search engine. In most cases, that is not going to be a private organization such as ours, and social media is not the best avenue for serious or urgent communications such as this.
We are truly grateful to live in a community with so many animal lovers willing to speak up when they suspect an animal has been mistreated. Thanks to all of you for your sincere concern and passion to make the world we live in a better one for animals.
Tabitha Treloar is the director of communications for the Richmond SPCA. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires both your first and last name to be used as your screen name.