The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

PETA wanted a fake cat video to go viral. It didn’t exactly turn out as planned.

(Courtesy of PETA)
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A small grey cat, Rufus, sits on a bar stool in a kitchen. “Rufus, jump,” a man says in a stern voice. Rufus looks at the stool next to his, a few feet away, and cowers. The owner sighs, walks over to the cat and instructs again. “Rufus, jump,” he says, and slaps the house cat hard, in the head. The cat doesn’t jump; he slaps the animal again. Finally, the cat does the trick. “Once more for the camera!” the owner demands, before the cat scurries away, terrified.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were intending to anonymously release this disturbing video on YouTube this week, to draw attention to animal cruelty. But there’s a problem: The video was faked. The cat is CGI. And a PR company working on PETA’s behalf asked a media organization to help them make the video go viral — without revealing that Rufus wasn’t real.

Last week, a Mashable reporter received a pitch from Press Kitchen, a PR company, asking the publication to write about the video and not explain its origins — even as the pitch acknowledged the video would be “planted on YouTube anonymously by the ad agency who created it for PETA.” In other words, the company wanted Mashable to play along with PETA and pretend as if they were unaware of who made the video or why.

“Your posting of the provocative piece would simply be to acknowledge that it’s in circulation — not to make any claims about its authenticity,” the pitch continued. Then, once the video went viral, shared by viewers who assumed it depicted actual abuse of a real cat, Mashable would get the exclusive on the fact that it was all just a provocative stunt. PETA would release a sequel to the original video, one that revealed the message the animal rights organization hoped its viewers would remember: While “Rufus” wasn’t real, bigger cats performing in circuses are trained in a similar manner to do tricks.

Instead of playing along, Mashable decided to write about the pitch itself. “PETA has reached a breathtaking new low,” its article begins. The piece, published Tuesday night, says that the group was “trying to enlist complicit media organizations to knowingly publish the fake video in an effort to make the lie go viral.”

PETA president and co-founder Ingrid Newkirk confirmed that some PETA staffers were aware of the ad agency’s plan, and said that the organization realized the idea was “ill-conceived” Tuesday night, after Mashable had expressed concerns to them about the pitch. But she denied that PETA’s intent was to trick people.

“There was never … any attempt to keep people in the dark that what they had seen was fake. The only issue here is timing.” Newkirk argued in an email to The Washington Post. “Would they realize immediately or would they be told after they reacted?”

Had it launched as planned, the video would have attempted to ride the Internet’s fast-paced outrage cycle to viral success — a cycle that can often outpace and outperform attempts to fact check it. Mashable’s decision to publish a piece about these pitches comes within that context. PETA intended to use this video to bring attention to a real cause, but it did so in an environment where the Internet has been overwhelmed by the problem of misleading or false stories and hoaxes that are designed to be blindly shared.

Despite PETA’s objections, Mashable stood by its decision to call out the pitches in an article. During a time of “heightened concern” about fake news on the Internet, Mashable executive editor Jessica Coen said on Wednesday that “publishing a story like this, that pulls back the curtain, is in the public interest.” Coen called the campaign, as initially pitched to the publication, “a shameless and blatant attempt to spread misinformation.”

“The abuse of animals is horrible,” she said. “You don’t need to resort to falsehoods.”

When The Post first reached Newkirk by phone on Wednesday morning, she was initially unaware of the exact pitch Mashable had received but said the pitch and its intent, as described to her over the phone by a reporter, was “not a pitch that PETA would make.” Later, Newkirk clarified that PETA “knew the PR company was looking for a partner to promote the videos, with the goal of getting people to be outraged about what was being done to a fake cat,” to be followed by a second video that explained Rufus was a CGI creation, and contained the message of the actual campaign: “that this parody abuse is really meted out to big cats in the circus and for movies.”

Newkirk added that PETA was “taken aback” by Mashable’s article and that it was “unfortunate Mashable didn’t wait for our response, as we were still assessing our approach.” Newkirk also emphasized that the video, as described to Mashable in that pitch, was never released to the public. Instead, PETA posted a single video containing both parts of the campaign together to YouTube on Wednesday.

PETA also provided The Washington Post with copies of the videos that were sent to and viewed by Mashable. The first is a very close approximation of an amateur cat video that is common on YouTube. The “owner” appears to be filming “Rufus” himself. While Rufus doesn’t appear identical to a real cat, it’s close enough that Rufus could fool someone who isn’t looking for a hoax. The video also contains no indication that PETA produced it or that it was anything other than a personal video by an abusive pet owner trying to get his cat to perform tricks for the camera — and presumably, a cat video-hungry audience online.

The Internet is filled with fake videos and bad information, and the world of viral videos is no different. YouTube pranksters often fake disturbing content for clicks — sometimes with the stated intent of revealing something new about human nature. Many of those videos are popular, but the Internet is less forgiving when those personalities decline to cue within the video that what they just watched isn’t real. And that likely would have been PETA’s problem — along with that of any media organization that would agree to collaborate on a video like this. PETA may have intended to reveal the message behind their viral video of Rufus once they had everyone’s attention. But there’s no guarantee that the message would be welcomed — or even heard — by the original viral video’s audience.

“PETA is justifying much of the plan based on the fact that there’d be a follow-up reveal. But that’s too little too late,” Coen said. “To follow up even 48 hours later is pointless.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to clarify the precise relationship between Press Kitchen, the PR company that pitched the campaign to Mashable, and PETA. Press Kitchen was working with an ad agency that created the campaign for PETA, and was not directly “working for PETA” as this article previously stated. 

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