The sorry state of discourse on the Internet has many causes, and the experts have offered many solutions for the mess. One of the biggest problems is the way that social media platforms reward engagement.
The sorry state of discourse on the Internet has many causes, and the experts have offered many solutions for the mess. One of the biggest problems is the way that social media platforms reward engagement. You get shown different content depending on what you click on. For instance, you might click on an innocuous-looking link for a topic such as “vaccine side effects” and from there be shown slightly darker stuff until you descend down into a thought bubble that represents a different reality from what other users are seeing.
I know what you are thinking: Is it possible for the platform (and the user) to get better at spotting these innocuous links that act as a front door to the dark conspiracies that have entrapped so many users? My best response is “good luck with that one,” or, to put it another way, what are you going to do about the cats?
Those adorable cat videos have been a fixture of the World Wide Web for years. One good video of a kitten playing a piano or scaring off a bear can generate thousands or even millions of clicks. If you know that, and I know that, it should not be a surprise that the people who drive traffic to conspiracies and other sketchy content are also aware of the power of cute.
Internet watchers are becoming increasingly alarmed by the connection between fringe groups and cute animal videos. A recent article in The New York Times  offers a useful summary of some recent examples. (Many New York Times stories are paywalled, but this one is accessible – at least for now.) According to analysis by the Times, Epoch Media, an organization associated with the Falun Gong religious sect that has expressed support for QAnon and other conspiracy theories, has posted 12,062 cute animal videos on 103 of its Facebook pages over the past year. These posts have racked up nearly 4 billion views. The website of a prominent anti-vaxxer, who researchers named as one of the most prolific sources of COVID-19 misinformation, recently ran a story with the title “Kitten and Chick Nap So Sweetly Together.”
The use of cute animal videos as engagement bait poses a problem for all who are working to rein in the abuses of Internet misinformation. These videos are endlessly popular, and nothing about the content gives any indication of the owner’s motivations. Sometimes these videos and cute images are accompanied by seemingly innocent teasers that say, “If you like videos like this one, click here,” and suddenly the viewer subscribes to a service or channel that opens a conduit for more misinformation.
Facebook and Google think they will eventually solve problems like this using AI, but such solutions are currently a long way off. What can we do about it now? It might be worth remembering to check the source before you forward that cute puppy pic to all your relatives and friends.
Joe Casad, Editor in Chief