Why Do Animal Tragedies Go Viral?

Cecil's death could have a lasting impact on attitudes toward wildlife.

Posted Apr 29, 2016

Vince O'Sullivan/Flickr
MAGMI1 - aka "Cecil"
Source: Vince O'Sullivan/Flickr

In 1999, researchers from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit began radio tracking lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Led by David Macdonald and Andrew Loveridge, the team was particularly interested in the effects of legal trophy hunting on lion populations. They found that between 1999 and 2015 about 65 lions were killed by sport hunters. None of these deaths drew any attention from the media. That changed on July 1, 2015 when, using a crossbow, an American trophy hunter shot a 13 year-old male lion that was part of the Oxford study. The lion's  identification label was MAGM1. You know him by his nickname – Cecil. Wounded and bleeding, Cecil took off into the bush. He was tracked down and killed the next day. 

Nothing much happened for about three weeks. Then, on July 27, 2015 the hunter was identified in a press report as Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota. A press and social media frenzy immediately ensued, fueled in part, by Tweets from celebrities such as Rickey Gervais and Sharon Osbourne. TV personality Piers Morgan, for example, tweeted to his followers, “I’d love to go hunting for killer dentist Walter Palmer so I can stuff his head… and mount him on MY office wall.”

But things really took off on July 28th when Jimmy Kimmel nearly broke down during the monologue on his talk show. (“Not all Americans are like this jackhole.”) (here) The Oxford research team was bombarded with requests for interviews, and media inquiries even extended to researchers who study human-animal relationships (My interviews with The Huffington Post and National Public Radio are here and here.) 

However, a month after Cecil’s death became an internet meme, another human-animal tragedy occurred in Hwange National Park that you probably did not hear about. A 40 year-old guide named Quinn Swales was attacked by a lion named Mxaha while leading a group of tourists on a walking safari (here). But this fatal mauling of a man by a lion generated little social media interest.

Why did the killing of Cecil go viral so quickly, particularly compared to the relative lack of media attention to Quinn Swales' death? Macdonald and the conservation research group at Oxford recently took this question on by analyzing the trajectory of social and editorial media coverage of Cecil. Their paper appeared in the journal Animals.

When Moral Outrage Becomes Socially Contagious

Through the auspices of a media-monitoring company, the researchers were able to count the number of hits generated by Cecil’s story between July 1 and September 30, 2015 in both the mainstream media and in social media (Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube). And, because the spread of interest in Cecil was international, they examined stories and messages related to Cecil’s death in 125 languages. Here is what they found.

Once the news broke on July 27, both social and traditional media coverage sky-rocketed instantly.  As shown in this graph, social media spiked to nearly 88,000 hits

Graph by Hal Herzog
Source: Graph by Hal Herzog

on July 29 and dropped rapidly over the next week. Cecil garnered most attention on Twitter (70,219 hits), followed by Facebook (9,961 hits) and YouTube (185 hits), with the three media platforms showing the same trajectory and timing. The total number of social media hits ran to nearly 700,000. Daily coverage in traditional media showed the same pattern, peaking at about 12,000 hits on July 29 and dropping 93% over the next ten days.  During the peak of Cecil’s fame, the deceased lion was the subject of 100,000 combined social and editorial media hits a day.

Cecil was a global phenomenon. Social media coverage was highest in North America, Australia, the UK, and parts of Africa. Levels of interest in South America were similar to that of Europe. Indeed, when they controlled for differences in access to social media, the team found that national differences in concern for Cecil was unrelated to a country’s wealth, infant mortality rates, or conservation efforts. 

Why Did Cecil Go Viral?

In a series of studies, University of Pennsylvania researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman explored the question of why some stories go viral and others do not (here). They found that one of the most important factors leading to internet success is the degree that an event or story evokes emotional arousal, especially anger. And Cecil’s death pushed all the right buttons. The villain was a rich American dentist, the victim was large, photogenic, and widely known even before his death. As reported in the press, the act involved both cruelty (slow death by wounding) and treachery (lured from a game park). Further, Cecil was a participant in a scientific study, and he had an easily identifiable English name.  

A “Cecil Moment” or a “Cecil Movement”?

Cecil's death was senseless, but there were a few upsides. One beneficiary was Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit. During his July 27 television show, Jimmy Kimmel urged viewers to send donations to the group in support of their African conservation efforts. Over the next two months, the unit received $1.06 million dollars to facilitate their research projects. Cecil’s death and the accompanying publicity also sparked a mass examination of the ethics of sport hunting. An HBO/Marist poll taken in the wake of Cecil’s death, only 11% of a representative sample of Americans thought it was acceptable to hunt big game such as lions and elephants.

I am opposed to killing lions because someone wants Simba’s head over their fireplace. But, as is so often the case with our relationships with other species, complications arise even when it comes to trophy hunting.  Walter Palmer paid $55,000 for his permit to shoot a lion. Sport hunting generates roughly $17 million dollars a year to Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries on Earth. Advocates of sport hunting point out that much of the wildlife conservation efforts in Africa are funded by revenue generated by wealthy individuals willing to spend a small fortune to take down a giraffe, a rhino or a lion. In a controversial essay titled “Why Killing Lions May Actually Be Good For Conservation,” conservation biologists Nikki Rust and Diogo Verissimo noted that Zambia banned trophy hunting of lions and leopards in 2013 but later reversed the decision because the government needed the income generated by hunting to support wildlife conservation efforts  (here). 

For Macdonald’s group, the important question is whether the Cecil meme will have legs. Will the overwhelming world-wide response to the death of one lion be a momentary blip on our cultural landscape (think “The Dress”). Or, like the movie Blackfish, will the outrage over Cecil have long-term social and political impact? Macdonald and his colleagues argue that the “Cecil Moment” has the potential to become the “Cecil Movement.” Time will tell if they are right.

For a riveting treatment of surprising moral complexities of trophy hunting, listen to the Radio Lab podcast, The Rhino Hunter (click here!).  Warning: It will spin your head around.

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Hal Herzog is professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. 

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