Recently, a story about a lost service dog reuniting with his human in Buffalo, New York became the target of some controversy on social media.
A woman said she had lost him after she fell, and it turns out that he had gotten tangled up on railroad tracks on his way to find help. Following treatment for her fall, the woman was reunited with her ecstatic dog.
That’s the kind of feel-good story pet lovers enjoy.
However, the version told by the good Samaritan who found the dog was fraught with accusations of cruelty and neglect. His version of events suggested that someone had tied the dog to the railroad tracks. This was shared on social media — and suddenly a lot of animal lovers were upset.
They quickly concluded that the dog must have been abused and left to die on those tracks.
Accusations like these, based on little or no evidence, are turning up more and more these days thanks to social media. Stories (whether from legitimate news sources or from personal experience) are shared online, and the response is predictably negative.
So, why are pet lovers so judgmental online?
Here are a few possible answers:
- Far too many negative stories are being shared online. Stories of animal cruelty and neglect are common. They seem to be shared far more often on social media than those with happy endings. It has reached a point where you can’t browse pet pages or groups without coming across at least 1 heartbreaking report of abuse. After so much exposure to negativity, pet lovers are quick to jump to the worst conclusions.
- Anonymity. Adding another negative comment to an angry online discussion has the same feeling as being part of an outraged crowd. You’re just agreeing with everyone else. Because of this, people are less likely to censor their viewpoints.
- “Pet abuse” stories are one-sided. The terms “abuse” and “neglect” are quickly replacing “accident” when it comes to sad stories. But accidents do happen — all the time! — and to people who are otherwise amazing caregivers to pets. Because these stories are told without that perspective, though, we’re left with a distorted version of events.
The Domino Effect
Online comments may begin with the best intentions, but when they’re twisted into ridiculous assumptions and demands for severe penalties without evidence, they just provoke more outraged responses.
Recently, someone posted in a pet group on Facebook that a dead dog was floating in a nearby river. This person was sharing the information in the hopes that the community could work together to alert the authorities and have the body removed. There was no indication of abuse or foul play.
The response was a typical mix:
- Sympathy. The overwhelming reaction was sympathy toward the dead dog.
- Lack of sympathy. Of course any pet lover would feel bad for the dog and her fate, but there was a frustrating and glaring lack of sympathy for the dog’s humans — who probably were distraught, searching for their beloved pet.
- Accusations. The 10th comment (out of 127) suggested foul play. The 17th comment accused someone of breeding the dog, taking her puppies and dumping her in the river. The 20th accused someone of killing her. Around the 75th comment, people started suggesting that this death was part of a dogfighting ring. Huh?!
- Helpful and logical comments. Not until the 86th comment did someone finally check to see if the dog had been reported lost. Most commenters thought it more important to blame an individual for a crime that may never have happened than finding the pet’s family.
Ultimately, this type of reaction doesn’t help anyone and is a waste of energy that could be used to support the pet community.
How to Use Social Media to Benefit the Pet Community
Social media can be a life-saver — literally! — when you use it responsibly.
To make your online experience more positive, try the following:
- Share those happy endings and feel-good stories.
- Make proactive choices when deciding how to respond to negative pet stories.
- Try to support your community pet lovers and stay positive.
- Don’t click links that are obviously baited with images of bloody pets.
The Internet isn’t just full of bad stories and hateful comments. There are plenty of heartwarming articles to go around as well. Resources for reuniting pets and families are a click away. And everywhere we look, organizations are making a positive impact on the lives of animals and people.