The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What that horrible video of a man kicking a squirrel off the Grand Canyon tells us about crime, animal cruelty and YouTube

A screenshot from the offending video. (YouTube via the Independent)

The video was only 15 seconds long, but its subject could spend six months in jail — and there’s a $16,000 bounty on any information leading to his arrest.

This is theoretically the price of filming animal cruelty and uploading it to YouTube, where thousands of people watched a shirtless man kick a squirrel off the edge of the Grand Canyon before YouTube took the video down earlier this week. In the clip, a man — wearing, for whatever reason, only short-shorts and a straw hat — lures a squirrel to the brink of a cliff before putting one shoe on and unceremoniously booting the animal into the air.

The video has provoked lots of outrage among animal-rights’ activists and concerned Internet viewers, as such videos usually do. But even though people are angry, and authorities are investigating, and PETA’s U.K. division has offered a 10,000-pound ($16,840) reward for information on the kicker’s identity … officials say it’s unlikely the man will be found, let alone fined or jailed.

And that underlines a problem that activists have complained about for years: YouTube, Vine and other video sites are favored hubs for clips of animal abuse. And in many cases, there’s not too much that anyone can do.

“The Internet can be a powerful medium for connecting us to information to combat animal cruelty,” warns PETA, which runs an entire program on Internet cruelty, “but it also can be a haven for animal abusers who celebrate and actively advertise their shocking crimes.”

To be clear, YouTube and Vine both prohibit violence that is purely “shocking, sensational” or otherwise gratuitous, and YouTube asks users not to post “bad stuff like animal abuse.” But both networks also rely on a flagging system to catch inappropriate content — in other words, they only review videos after another user reports them. (This differs from, say, the systems that many sites use to detect child porn, which scan all images automatically.)

The system usually works, but it can work slowly. Frequently videos are only taken down after they’ve already gone viral — so viral, in fact, that you’ve probably seen, or heard, several. There were the girls who burned a tortoise before stomping it to death; the teens in Maine who microwaved their kitten; and the 23-year-old Chicago man who spun dogs through the air by their collar in a series of stomach-turning videos he called “dog tornados.”

… the list, unfortunately, goes on.

Even once YouTube has caught an offending animal video, their response differs from their response to other types of disturbing content. If someone uploads child porn, for instance, YouTube reports it to police. And if someone films hate speech against a minority group, offended users can use the escalated Safety and Abuse Reporting Tool to fast-track its removal. (In general, it’s YouTube and Google’s long-standing policy to only turn over user data when served a warrant.)

But if someone uploads a video of himself microwaving a kitten, all users can do is flag it — and all YouTube will do is take the video down, often too quickly for the clip to be escalated to other authorities or investigated for clues. In fact, PETA asks concerned viewers to alert the organization before they flag a video as inappropriate, for that very reason. Likewise, the Humane Society recommends reporting videos directly to the FBI.

What can be done here? That’s hard to say. Any number of petitions have demanded that YouTube take a stronger and more explicit stance on animal cruelty, including one — which reached nearly 5,000 signatures — that claimed the site was “encouraging illegal activity and promoting animal cruelty” by failing to proactively expunge the videos from its site.

At the same time, as YouTube has pointed out in other cases, it’s impossible to review the 100 hours of video that are uploaded to the site every minute. The network is reactionary by necessity, not choice — it will always be a little less agile than the individuals uploading smut to it.

Which means more animal-abuse videos will be made, and, perhaps, their makers will never be caught.