Toxic Twitter abuse could skew UK wildlife law
University of Reading, Phys.org
March 9, 2023
Wildlife conservation efforts could suffer because toxic online rows about
trophy hunting are becoming increasingly abusive, ecologists have warned.
Scientists have analyzed hundreds of tweets about trophy hunting and found
that 7% were abusive. This is a similar proportion to content on partisan
topics on social media platforms known to highlight extreme viewpoints.
The findings, by conservation scientists at the University of Reading and
the University of Sheffield, are published today (March 9) in the journal
Graphic images posted on Twitter of tigers, crocodiles, giraffes and
elephants shot by hunters often provoke angry responses from Twitter users.
For example, in two tweets examined by the researchers, one user says a
trophy hunter "deserved to die" and another said trophy hunters should
As a result of this hostile atmosphere, arguments from some
conservationists, who suggest trophy hunting might be positive overall for
protecting species and habitats, are often shouted down by the opponents of
hunting. This means different conservation viewpoints are not heard and
policymakers are less aware of them.
Dr. Luke Evans, from the University of Reading's School of Biological
Sciences, was the lead author of the study. He said, "Controversial cases
involving trophy hunting, such as the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe
in 2015, have caused an explosion in angry tweets.
"These comments become more hostile and angry as celebrities, activists and
some politicians risk creating 'pile-ons' in opposition to any mention of
trophy hunting, or those who suggest pro-hunting viewpoints. For example,
one prominent ecologist who regularly advocates for the conservation
benefits of trophy hunting on Twitter has been called a murderer and a
"This strong anti-trophy hunting sentiment is now moving into UK law, with
the UK government proposing a ban on trophy hunting imports. Such a law
needs to be properly discussed and debated by experts and the public, but
it is almost impossible to have this discussion online without seeing
extreme anti-hunting viewpoints, often combined with abuse.
"A new British law banning hunting trophy imports could have a big impact
on conservation worldwide, with both negative and positive influences in
different locations. This needs to be scrutinized, but it's possible that
Twitter's toxicity could skew the debate away from the evidence."
Needless Suffering or 'Necessary Evil?'
The research team examined 500 tweets to identify themes and tones in
trophy-hunting debates on Twitter. They found that 350 tweets opposed
trophy hunting, with Twitter users often conveying sadness, anger or
disgust at the suffering caused to the hunted animals.
Of these anti-hunting tweets, 7% contained abusive content, such as insults
or threats of violence. This is a similar rate to the proportion of abusive
posts found on extreme messaging sites such as Gab or 4Chan.
Less than 5 percent of tweets expressed views in favor of trophy hunting,
often expressed with a "reluctant" tone, or acknowledging that the practice
was a "necessary evil." Some Twitter users disliked the shooting of
animals, but suggested trophy hunting provides funding and aids wider
conservation efforts, helping other species to thrive in habitats
maintained as hunting grounds.
All the tweets analyzed by the researchers were anonymized, to protect the
identities of the tweeters. However public searches of tweets quickly show
the levels of abuse and hyperbole displayed in hunting debates on
Twitter—including those stoked by celebrities. In one tweet, comedian Ricky
Gervais (who has previously supported proposed legislation banning the
import of trophy-hunted animals which is set for a vote by UK lawmakers
later on Friday, March 17), uses a profanity for a trophy hunter holding a
dead leopard. In another post, actor Peter Egan says trophy hunters are
Co-author Dr. Vicky Boult, from the University of Reading, said, "As
scientists, we wanted to investigate the tone of this online debate in a
"What we found was quite shocking, with some people who expressed views
deemed to be pro-hunting facing death threats and extreme abuse. We saw
that such abuse could sometimes be traced back to the activities of
celebrities with large online followings.
"While some people may dislike the activities of hunters, it's important
that we don't create laws that actually damage conservation efforts by
shutting down genuine debate and replacing it with abuse."