The dangers of fake news

Elephant Family recently shared a video which had gone viral online, showing a mother elephant helping her calf to climb over a roadside barrier in The Nilambur area in Kerala. The video was being shared across the internet and widely being labelled as “heartwarming” and “sweet”. Whilst we love that wildlife stories are being shared and enjoyed by audiences across the world, it is vital that we take a step back to think about what some of these videos are actually showing us: the truth behind the story.

Video: Anish Kata

If we take this video as an example, many people thought that it was simply an adorable instance showing how maternal and caring elephants can be. This is very much true, these creatures are incredibly sentient and sentimental, and the bond between mother and calf is one of the strongest seen in nature owing to their gestation period and the length of time they spend with their mothers before becoming independent adults. As such, those calling the video “heartwarming” were in a sense correct.

But herein lies the danger, highlighting the larger issue of fake news that surrounds such online content. In fact what we’re seeing in the footage is an elephant having to alter her behaviour as a result of human influence. The reason she has to help her calf is because there is a man-made barrier in both of their paths – one that was most likely not there the last time the mother elephant made that particular journey. Therefore the subject of this video is representative of the global crisis of human-wildlife conflict, and not – as we have been lead to believe – representative of the sweet-natured characteristics so often displayed by these creatures.

But why is it a problem if we’re lead to believe or feel something that isn’t necessarily accurate? In this case, the problem is that in believing that this behaviour is “heartwarming” audiences are failing to see the issue at the heart of the video. This allows further development such as road building to continue unquestioned; currently the Government in India has a target to build 200km of new road each week, which will mean that occurrences of human-wildlife conflict like this one will become more frequent. In order to prevent this, it is hugely important that videos like this one are used to demonstrate the negative impact of such development. But it’s not just elephants that have been the “stars” of such viral content.

In the past, other videos of wildlife exhibiting unusual, entertaining or anthropomorphic behaviours have also gone viral like this bear in Moscow.


Video: Bear Conservation

This video was shared and initially sparked amazement that the bear had been trained to behave in such a way. But at the time, the issue of unfair treatment of animals in circuses was being hotly debated with the few remaining animal circuses being shut down. Very soon this video came to represent the endemic problem of the maltreatment of wild animals for human entertainment, and people questioned how this bear had come to learn such a behaviour – it was very likely that the bear would have been abused.

It may seem like these examples of misleading video content represent two very different issues, but at the root of both of them is the same truth: these wild animals have had their natural behaviours changed as a result of human influence and ultimately for human benefit.

Now we’re aware of the presence of “fake news”, how do we combat it? There are a few simple steps to spotting fake news:

  • Who shared it/published it?
  • What language is being used? Is it exaggerating or loaded?
  • Look at the posting account’s bio. Does the information on there reflect the content that they’ve shared?
  • Try searching for the content again and see if a source that you trust has shared it.
  • THINK TWICE. Question how you have reacted to the video and what the content is truly saying before you launch into opinion mode.

In a world where “fake news” is rife and the issue of global human-wildlife conflict is increasingly highlighted in the press and online, it is more important than ever that we question the information we are being fed by the media, and what reaction they are trying to invoke. It’s all too easy to be swept up in trends and popular opinions, but when it comes to such an entrenched problem as human-wildlife conflict Elephant Family feel responsible for encouraging our friends and supporters to think twice.

Elephant Family endeavours to share accurate and relevant information from reputable sources so that our audiences can learn more about the issues that we work so hard to resolve and the causes of our conservation work. We firmly believe that it is in doing so that we can help to avoid the problem of “fake news” and raise awareness of the truth behind fiction.