Friday, April 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

The Psychological Effects of Witnessing Cruelty to Animals on Social Media: An Interview with Dr Kieschnick and Dr Lawlor

By Felix Porée

Royal Holloway graduate Felix Porée, who is studying for his MA in War Studies at Kings College London, recently collaborated with the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics to interview Dr Dustin Kieschnick and Dr Katie Lawlor. Dr Kieschnick holds a Doctorate of Psychology as a graduate of the PGSP-Stanford PsyD Consortium as well as being a licensed clinical psychologist, and Dr Lawlor holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Stanford and specialises in the human-animal bond, grief, and pet loss. Felix specialises in the studies of 19th-century German philosophy, ethics, and terrorism. More information can be found via his LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/felixporee/

In a discussion centred around animal cruelty and its links with social media, Felix, Dustin, and Katie touched on human value systems, animal intelligence, animal abuse and trauma in the following interview transcription.

Felix Porée: Why do the algorithms show animal cruelty videos to those particular people? In other words, those videos exist, but how prevalent are they? How likely would anyone see them unless they were looking for them? 

Dustin Kieschnick: I’m not sure if the algorithms specifically identify particular individuals, but we know that folks who are interested in animal ethics will be more in the range of where these videos land. We do know that many social media companies have content curators that monitor cruelty-based content, but we also think but can’t confirm that it tends to be much more human-centric. In that way, folks who are engaged in animal advocacy are bound to see these types of videos. They’re bound by the nature of what they’re interested in to be more exposed to them instead of necessarily being targeted with the content.

Katie Lawlor: If we knew how the algorithms worked, we’d be billionaires. We met at Stanford at the boom of the start-up period. I know that if I watch one video on a particular topic, I will get ten more. I would identify as an animal lover, but because I follow one hashtag that leads to another, an example being the orcas stranded in ice off of the coast of Japan, where I saw 50 videos from 50 different organisations, I will see a lot of distressing footage.

FP: Do you think that there is a symbiotic relationship or compounding effect where one who sees a video sees ten more, then even more?

KL: Absolutely. If you start engaging and resharing, people will start to send you more, and you might gain a following. When the pandemic started, I was working in a women’s clinic. I always wanted to work more with animals, grief, and loss and was told that this is a fringe movement. When we were all sent home, I got the courage to start an Instagram account which has grown beyond my wildest beliefs. I started as an animal lover, and people send me 50 videos a day asking if I can share. Because I am getting all of these messages, I feel like the algorithm’s perfect variable.

DK: On the other side of that, when one thinks about content creators who produce this content, they are, in many cases, walking a line. In some cases, you cannot create a movement to action without giving a full depiction of what is happening. You do run the risk of pushing people into a state of avoidance where they are overwhelmed and have seen too much of a thing. This is where people might go into a more traumatic response which I think is often unintended as it really is a fine line between not giving enough information so there is no drive to action.

KL: I have a very good friend who is on the board of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which is based in Namibia. I was talking to her exactly about this and she said we get so many views when we share a video of a cute baby cheetah, but that is not what we’re raising money for. We are raising money to stop the poachers and those who kidnap cheetahs. If we show that, we lose followers. So, where is that fine line between documenting and demonstrating the truth and showing those with the money we need for donations what they want to see?

FP: It is interesting to hear that it has become commodified, and you have to show the people what they want.

FP: How has social media affected this bias in the treatment of certain animals? Is this bias justifiable given the special kind of ‘contract’ we make with domesticated animals, particularly pets?

KL: Absolutely, and I was just looking at some figures. Social media has given a tremendous platform to individuals to make a name for themselves. There are domestic animals that have a celebrity status on social media. Bloomberg says that the pet industry is worth $320 billion, and that is supposed to go up to $500 billion by 2030. What can be really disheartening for me is seeing a million comments when there is a domestic animal abuse situation which gets local news coverage and an outpouring of crowdfunding, but then to see a lack of attention given to a captive animal for entertainment. I think it is really tough when we see the people we admire who have massive followings promoting makeup tested on animals, wearing leather or fur. Kendall Jenner just wore a fur jacket, and that’s horrible. No judgement, but she has 50 million followers, especially young girls.

FP: I also think, regarding fashion, people use pets as accessories. You have some dog breeds, such as the Pug or the French Bulldog, who have been bred into misery for fashion. These are interesting cases as when people think of using animals, they think of fur, not the living animals.

KL: Absolutely. For example, Demi Moore’s dog was the hit of the holiday season.

FP: What are your thoughts on the fact that we will often find it more traumatising to witness abuse on domesticated animals than wild?

DK: I think it really comes back to this larger animal ethics question where there are some where we feel more outraged about than others. If we tie it to folks’ value systems where, almost universally, you will find that folks are very opposed to cruelty against domesticated animals. When it comes to animals for food, there is a value system where so many people don’t see it as cruelty or trauma. There is a segment of folks who will absolutely experience it as horrific.

KL: It is both actually. There are those who say they are an animal lover but will order a steak at a restaurant, so they’re cat or dog love. They really do have the best intentions at heart, but they see livestock as work or food; they don’t make the distinction. I’ll give the example of the famous photo of the turtle with the straw in its nose. There are now no plastic straws in the US because that image was so powerful. You protect what you love, and that is the psychological grounding for this.

DK: It is a generalisable bond; it is the same idea as even if we don’t have children, we see child abuse as abhorrent. If we have a dog and can relate to having a domestic animal and what that bond looks and feels like, we can generalise that to other situations and say, ‘Oh, this is really traumatising’. If I don’t have that bond with a cow for instance, I don’t feel as tied to it. 

KL: Slaughterhouses have done a phenomenal job of hiding it.

DK: There is so much of it that is not front and centre. If we come face to face with the reality of what taking a life is and looks like, if we all had to conduct the butchering for our own meat, I imagine there would be many more folks saying this is cruel and something I can’t do.

FP: It is interesting to me how, culturally, we hide a lot of abattoirs, but in other cultures, it is less of an issue. This also makes me think of the arbitrary line of what animals can and can’t be eaten in other cultures, even animals that are domesticated such as horses and dogs.

KL: This is such an important thing to talk about. For instance, we were really excited to see Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy, but in one of the episodes, they kill a rabbit on TV, and we have one running around. This was jarring, but having lived and spent time in Africa and having come back from Costa Rica, where they have a huge street dog problem. It is difficult to go to a culture that doesn’t have the financial stability that our culture does and say, ‘No, you can’t use these animals for the work that you need to do or no, you can’t eat these animals’ when their populations are starving. This is a really sensitive issue, and a younger, more naïve me would have jumped into it, but not having travelled, it would not be appropriate for me to weigh in on, and I haven’t lived that life.

FP: You have the exact same thing in environmental ethics, you have two billion people who just cannot afford to not use plastic.

KL: This is it exactly; how am I supposed to tell a mum not to feed her children this when the option is this or death?

FP: Does the philosophical or religious worldview of someone directly change the amount of trauma one has or how they view the suffering or abuse of an animal? For instance, does one with a pessimistic outlook exhibit less ‘care’ than one with a more optimistic outlook? Different religions have different views, such as Jain vegetarianism and Buddhism’s reincarnation; how do these thought systems affect one’s amount of trauma? 

DK: It is very relative. So much of what we hear is based on the idea of sentience, and the more sentience we think another being has, the more empathy we have and the less likely we are to allow that being to be subjected to cruelty. I think it really is a function of worldview and values, but it really is relative to ‘how do I actually conceptualise this other being’.

KL: To bring a personal lens to it, having grown up very Catholic and seeing the Bible being used to justify the slaughter of animals, such as in Genesis or people using different passages to spread their view. Also, having worked with a lot of patients who say that it is ok when a pet is dead as they are in Heaven makes me wonder about this life. What about their care and treatment in this life? People’s religions and ethical views play a huge part in these kinds of conversations.

FP: This is true, and I think an example could be most people not checking the ground to make sure that they’re not standing on an ant unless they’re a Jain, but they would take extra care not to stand on a puppy if they knew there were puppies in their house.

FP: Does our perception of the intelligence level of the animal affect the amount of empathy one has when viewing its suffering? Somewhat related, how do differing perspectives on the inherent value of animals influence our reactions to and responsibilities regarding online content depicting harm to them?

DK: There are two things happening at once; there are the individual morals and value systems and the definition of what makes something traumatic. In the DSM, which outlines the criteria for mental health disorders, one of the qualifying criteria of PTSD is someone having to experience a traumatic or series of traumatic events. These are defined as something life-threatening or a threat of serious injury to yourself or someone close to you. Depending on your ethics, this could be an animal. So, when we look at this, it gets complicated because we can’t really predict with a degree of certainty whether someone will perceive an event as traumatic. Sometimes, a person will experience a traumatic event and be OK over time; sometimes, folks will experience a sea of traumatic effects and not show signs until hitting a critical mass. This is generally the more appropriate fit when it comes to social media and depictions of cruelty to animals. All of that is to say that trauma and ethics are a spectrum, and sometimes it is a concoction more than anything.

KL: The amount of education and campaigns that are out there on social media is astounding. Cows, for instance, can form quite complex societies and are more intelligent than we give them credit for. There is the popular line that pigs are as smart as a three-year-old. Well, my nephew is three, and she is pretty smart. Most people don’t fall asleep in front of an academic journal; they need something simple and easy to understand, so showing the intelligence of animals in this way is powerful.

FP: Peter Singer does this really well in Animal Ethics.

KL: Yes, yes, absolutely.

FP: How has the historical evolution of societal attitudes towards animals influenced our current perceptions of animal cruelty, and in what ways has social media accelerated or challenged these historical perspectives?

KL: Look at Laika, the first dog in space. In 1957, the Soviets sent up this dog on Sputnik 2, and they had no way of bringing her back. Recently, there was a report that said she probably burnt to death or overheated. With the rise of social media, this would absolutely never happen today. With a phone in our hand, we always have a voice. In 1957, we didn’t unless you worked in news or politics. We could argue that social media has been tremendous in this aspect as it makes opinions heard in real-time. It gives people on the front lines the opportunity to share what is really happening.

FP: How does the way animal cruelty incidents are framed or narrated on social media impact public perceptions and emotional responses, and what role does narrative framing play in shaping ethical considerations?

DK: I’ll go back to what I mentioned before. There is a fine line between cultivating awareness and overwhelming the people you are trying to bring in.

KL: We gave a presentation at Oxford this summer, and a lot of the feedback said that they wouldn’t have known about these things happening without social media. There is also compassion fatigue, which is why we see such high suicide numbers in veterinarians. Social media can pull us in because it can make such a difference, but there is no foreseeable end ever to how much we can give. In the past, when we had less global engagement in our lives, we might burn out at work, but now there is the threat of burning out on social media viewing these things and shutting down.

DK: There is a platform bigger than anything in history that will allow us to say, ‘Hey, this thing is wrong’. I think back to my past before social media, and engaging on social media allowed me to think about meat being eaten and think, ‘Oh, this now disgusts me’. Part of this evolution has been being exposed to different viewpoints challenging my notions, which social media has given me. But it can also go the other direction too.

KL: The Wayne Hsiung trials in Sonoma speak to the power of social media. Wayne and his colleagues captured sick hens on farms on video. The farms sued him, and he was found guilty and went to prison for 90 days. We would never have known about it without social media and the ability to distribute the work he and Direct Action were doing. You can use it as a tool, but there are repercussions.

FP: Does one’s lack of proximity with the animal, knowing that it has already happened if it is a video, and one might be thousands of miles away, affect the trauma one has from viewing animal abuse material?

DK: I wonder if it is more a form of emotional proximity as opposed to physical proximity. This goes back to my previous answers where seeing cruelty to any being we think shouldn’t be feeling cruelty affects us.

KL: If you look at Cecil the Lion, this was thousands of miles away, but people saw that and felt connected to the Lion. This case has a massive ripple effect, and there was a call to ban animal trophies on international flights. This had such an impact, and no one would have known about this without social media. It can put us on the front line at any time. There is no longer any physical proximity, it is all emotional now.

FP: Is it possible that there is an overlap in our reactions toward child abuse and animal abuse? Does this relate to our infantilisation of the animal kingdom, possibly as an expression of anthropocentrism?

KL: I know that Peppa Pig is big in the UK, but that is your bacon. Or that cosmetics are tested on Mickey Mouse or the gang from Paw Patrol. We grow up feeling so connected to animals, but because of our society, there is a bigger disconnect the older get. There is an interesting psychological theory called the Terror management theory that states that humans avoid death anxiety. If we went around all day with the true understanding that this is impermanent, we couldn’t function. By othering animals, putting them in cages, eating them, or wearing them, we become the rulers of the world. 

FP: How much of an overlap is there between people who view animal abuse material and people who later go on to commit animal abuse?

KL: The Animal Legal Defence Fund’s latest view cited that numerous studies have documented the multifaceted links between cruelty to animals and violence to others, including domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and antisocial behaviour. We call this ‘the link’. It is not always the case that someone will commit animal abuse and then move to humans, but if you want to abuse, you tend to go for the easiest thing. For kids and animals, this tends to be pets.

FP: This is very similar to a lot of serial killers who start of small with animals and then move on to humans.

KL: There was a huge case actually this week that set a precedent for us. A 15-year-old Michigan student killed four students. The mother was found guilty of manslaughter, but one of the things that came out in court that she missed was him abusing animals and putting them on social media. In this case, his abuse did graduate, but it is more to do with the proximity and control one wants over victims.

DK: The hallmark of antisocial personality disorder and in kids conduct disorder is this lack of empathy. Part of that or one of the criteria for diagnosis is torturing and killing animals; this is a huge red flag, so to speak, for the future development of empathy-devoid personality traits.

KL: But where is the research on whether or not this is genetic or a choice?

DK: We don’t know if this is a genetic predisposition or severe and persistent trauma, or perhaps a mixture.

FP: I think this is more of a question for all early development psychology, not just animals.

FP: In reference to trauma, is there an added element of guilt due to how the modern world has exploited natural habitats? 

KL: I would say 1000% absolutely. We are here in San Francisco, but during the pandemic, we moved to Lake Tahoe, which has a huge population of bears. The bear community has really developed in the last 100 years, but in the summer of 2023, 70 bears were hit by vehicles, and 40 died immediately, with others dying soon after. For me and others who care, there is a tremendous amount of guilt. There was a GIF going around last week about shark-infested waters, and I just thought: ‘They are not shark-infested waters. We can’t go into an animal’s home or habitat and then be upset when wildlife or the native animals for that place interfere with our living. This is a very human-centric view, and there is an extraordinary amount of guilt. If you follow US politics, you’ll just see ‘build build money money money’, and you’ll see that with one presidential candidate.

DK: The guilt is relative, really.

FP: What differences are there in the characteristics of trauma associated with human-on-animal as opposed to animal-on-animal violence? 

DK: That is a really tough one because there is an element of animal-on-animal violence which is regarded as the natural way of the world. There is something about human-to-animal violence which, based on your ethical view, can be seen as unnatural.

KL: This is really interesting if you look at California’s cock-fighting. If you see it in the wild, like when I saw Cheetahs go after their kill, this is natural, and we don’t want to interfere. But when humans get animals to fight, it is unnatural, and those types of cases are starting to get a lot more attention as they are for entertainment.

DK: A huge aspect of trauma is the fact that it is something that doesn’t happen every day or it is something out of the ordinary. If we think about this as an injury, it is something that doesn’t happen every day to individuals.

KL: That is why there is a lasting impact because something is happening to you that you can’t prepare for.

FP: You are saying the same thing that I think. It is natural for animals, but as human beings who have the cognitive awareness to choose not to do it, when we do, we are playing a different game than animals or existing in a different sphere.

KL: This is exactly it. For instance, we are both vegan, but our dog needs to eat meat. All of this has nuances and is complex.

FP: Are there psychological defence mechanisms that individuals employ when exposed to traumatic animal cruelty content on social media, and how do these mechanisms influence their subsequent behaviours or attitudes? Have you observed any cultural variations in how people from different regions respond to animal cruelty content on social media, and how might cultural perspectives influence the psychological impact?

DK: I do think that there are defence mechanisms, but they are implemented at different times. Part of the experience of trauma is almost the breakdown of coping mechanisms where your experience is beyond your ability to cope. This is where we see the variation in something that happens once when someone has PTSD or a series of events where someone eventually breaks down.

FP: We sometimes call this a ‘cognitive opening’ where a traumatic event can lead one to almost having a shattered ego that needs to latch on to something; this thing could be good, or it could be awful.

DK: That is such a great point because so much of how we conceptualise trauma is a shattering of a worldview, a world going from safe to unsafe. In some folks, the pain is so great they cannot see the pain in others.

KL: After a traumatic event at the hands of another, we might tell ourselves that others cannot be trusted. Some veterinarians might feel imposter syndrome after failing a surgery. Trauma changes how you view the world.

FP: Can certain types of media literacy mitigate the psychological effects of animal cruelty content, and what effective coping strategies can individuals adopt to maintain their mental well-being while engaging with such content?

DK: One technique we teach cultivates awareness like a check-in. When you engage with something, you should look at your emotional response afterwards, how you view it, and whether it stays on your mind. Does it remind you of previous events, creating a cumulative event? Am I finding myself preoccupied days or weeks afterwards in dreams or during the day when I notice intrusive thoughts plying reels of it? Do I also start to notice things in my body, feelings of fatigue? What I noticed when dealing with lots of people who have trauma is that I would be fine during the week, but at the end of the week, I was completely exhausted; there was something about it that would stick with me physically. There is a really good book called ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ which is about how folks experience trauma in their bodies. Part of what we try to do is tell folks to really be attuned as it tells you that there might be something you need to process, and then there are different ways to process such as relying on support, exercise, or journaling. You need to find a cathartic release, and this will also help you rebuild coping mechanisms.

KL: You need to have boundaries around it. If you are doing this at work, shut your laptop when you are finished and keep to that limit. It could be something as simple as I am going to limit myself to 30 minutes of footage. If there is something to give you your agency back, such as reminding yourself what you have done.

FP: So you are creating different spheres of being, for instance, having a specific room or laptop that allows you enter a different mental state to view this content.

DK: Yes, you have to create a sort of containment.

KL: I worked in a sleep hygiene lab, and the rule was never to have a computer, phone, or TV in bed, as the bed was just for sleep. Compartmentalising aspects of your life sounds simple but can help you maintain boundaries.

FP: What specific research areas at the crossroads of animal ethics and social media require further exploration, and what strategies or interventions might be investigated to tackle the psychological challenges arising from the online portrayal of animal cruelty?

How should society balance the freedom of expression with moral considerations when representing animal cruelty on social media?

KL: We are just at the advent of this question. The government is thinking of putting massive fines on social media companies that allow this content. The impact that social media engagement has on children and their views will be a topic for decades to come; it changes how we view the world.

DK: Specifically on social media, the definition in the DSM of trauma says that one cannot have experience of a traumatic event via a digital medium. I think social media has changed this.

FP: When I was analysing footage of civilian drone strikes in the Middle East, we were mandated our own person to talk to 24/7 if we needed to. They knew that, even though I wasn’t in Iraq or Syria, I needed a person to talk to about what I was viewing.

DK: This is such a huge area of future study as the depictions that people are viewing as so much more real. I spent some time in the military, and those doing the drone strikes were exhibiting aspects of PTSD. People don’t often think about this in the animal advocacy world, but we have talked with lawyers on cruelty cases who said that they noticed within themselves changed. When we spoke at Oxford, people came up to us and said: ‘Thank you for naming this or talking about this’. We know this happens in the community but people don’t talk about it because people might think that they shouldn’t feel this way. Exploring this through additional research is necessary.

KL: This is one of the reasons we were so excited; well, it is hard to say excited when you are talking about animal cruelty, to talk about this. The DSM, which is in its fifth edition, does not include the virtual aspect of trauma and doesn’t include animals; right now, it has to be humans. What makes this fascinating is that in order to get insurance to cover mental health in this country, you have to get a DSM 5 diagnosis; that is how we bill.

FP: One of many problems with the US healthcare system.

KL: HAHA. Indeed. Totally. One of many problems. That is really, at a practical level, massive as it excludes hundreds of people who work in animal welfare.