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On Oct. 2, New Tang Dynasty Television, a station linked to the Chinese non secular motion Falun Gong, posted a Facebook video of a lady saving a child shark stranded on a shore. Next to the video was a hyperlink to subscribe to The Epoch Times, a newspaper that’s tied to Falun Gong and that spreads anti-China and right-wing conspiracies. The put up collected 33,000 likes, feedback and shares.

The web site of Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic doctor who researchers say is a chief spreader of coronavirus misinformation on-line, often posts about cute animals that generate tens and even a whole bunch of hundreds of interactions on Facebook. The tales embrace “Kitten and Chick Nap So Sweetly Together” and “Why Orange Cats May Be Different From Other Cats,” written by Dr. Karen Becker, a veterinarian.

And Western Journal, a right-wing publication that has revealed unproven claims about the advantages of utilizing hydroxychloroquine to deal with Covid-19, and unfold falsehoods about fraud within the 2020 presidential election, owns Liftable Animals, a well-liked Facebook web page. Liftable Animals posts tales from Western Journal’s fundamental web site alongside tales about golden retrievers and giraffes.

Videos and GIFs of cute animals — normally cats — have gone viral on-line for nearly so long as the web has been round. Many of the animals grew to become well-known: There’s Keyboard Cat, Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub and Nyan Cat, simply to call a number of.

Now, it’s changing into more and more clear how broadly the old-school web trick is being utilized by individuals and organizations peddling false info on-line, misinformation researchers say.

The posts with the animals don’t instantly unfold false info. But they’ll draw an enormous viewers that may be redirected to a publication or web site spreading false details about election fraud, unproven coronavirus cures and different baseless conspiracy theories solely unrelated to the movies. Sometimes, following a feed of cute animals on Facebook unknowingly indicators customers up as subscribers to deceptive posts from the identical writer.

Melissa Ryan, chief government of Card Strategies, a consulting agency that researches disinformation, mentioned this sort of “engagement bait” helped misinformation actors generate clicks on their pages, which might make them extra distinguished in customers’ feeds sooner or later. That prominence can drive a broader viewers to content material with inaccurate or deceptive info, she mentioned.

“The strategy works because the platforms continue to reward engagement over everything else,” Ms. Ryan mentioned, “even when that engagement comes from” publications that additionally publish false or deceptive content material.

Perhaps no group deploys the tactic as forcefully as Epoch Media, dad or mum firm of The Epoch Times. Epoch Media has revealed movies of cute animals in 12,062 posts on its 103 Facebook pages prior to now yr, in accordance with an evaluation by The New York Times. Those posts, which embrace hyperlinks to different Epoch Media web sites, racked up practically 4 billion views. Trending World, one among Epoch’s Facebook pages, was the fifteenth hottest web page on the platform within the United States between July and September.

One video, posted final month by The Epoch Times’s Taiwan web page, exhibits a close-up of a golden retriever whereas a lady tries in useless to pry an apple from its mouth. It has over 20,000 likes, shares and feedback on Facebook. Another put up, on Trending World’s Facebook web page, incorporates a seal grinning broadly with a household posing for an image at a Sea World resort. The video has 12 million views.

Epoch Media didn’t reply to a request for remark.

“Dr. Becker is a veterinarian, her articles are about pets,” mentioned an e-mail from Dr. Mercola’s public relations crew. “We reject any New York Times accusations of misleading any visitors, but are not surprised by it.”

The viral animal movies typically come from locations like Jukin Media and ViralHog. The corporations determine extraordinarily shareable movies and attain licensing offers with the individuals who made them. After securing the rights to the movies, Jukin Media and ViralHog license the clips to different media corporations, giving a reduce of the income to the unique creator.

Mike Skogmo, Jukin Media’s senior vice chairman for advertising and communications, mentioned his firm had a licensing cope with New Tang Dynasty Television, the station tied to Falun Gong.

“Jukin has licensing deals with hundreds of publishers worldwide, across the political spectrum and with a range of subject matters, under guidelines that protect the creators of the works in our library,” he mentioned in a press release.

Asked whether or not the corporate evaluated whether or not their clips had been used as engagement bait for misinformation in hanging the license offers, Mr. Skogmo mentioned Jukin had nothing else so as to add.

“Once someone licenses our raw content, what they do with it is up to them,” mentioned Ryan Bartholomew, founding father of ViralHog. “ViralHog is not supporting or opposing any cause or objective — that would be outside of our scope of business.”

The use of animal movies presents a conundrum for the tech platforms like Facebook, as a result of the animal posts themselves don’t comprise misinformation. Facebook has banned adverts from Epoch Media when the community violated its political promoting coverage, and it took down a number of hundred Epoch Media-affiliated accounts final yr when it decided that the accounts had violated its “coordinated inauthentic behavior” insurance policies.

“We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times already,” mentioned Drew Pusateri, a Facebook spokesman. “If we discover that they’re engaging in deceptive actions in the future we will continue enforcing against them.” The firm didn’t touch upon the tactic of utilizing cute animals to unfold misinformation.

Rachel E. Moran, a researcher on the University of Washington who research on-line misinformation, mentioned it was unclear how typically the animal movies led individuals to misinformation. But posting them continues to be a well-liked tactic as a result of they run such a low threat of breaking a platform’s guidelines.

“Pictures of cute animals and videos of wholesome moments are the bread and butter of social media, and definitely won’t run afoul of any algorithmic content moderation detection,” Ms. Moran mentioned.

“People are still using it every day,” she mentioned.

Jacob Silver contributed analysis.

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