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An Instagram account promised to plant a tree for every pet picture. 4 million posts later, where are they?

A golden retrieve in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria in 2018. Pet pictures popped up all over Instagram after a prompt from an account took off on the platform. (Maya Karkalicheva/Moment RF/Getty Images)

The promise was straightforward: “We’ll plant 1 tree for every pet picture.”

Within minutes, that prompt this week from an account called Plant A Tree Co. took off on Instagram. It became a global trend, with millions of people rushing to upload photos of cats and dogs — with many probably thinking they were helping the environment in the process.

As of Tuesday morning, there were more than 4.1 million posts from people sharing photos of their pets, using Instagram’s “Add Yours” interactive sticker feature, which was introduced globally last week.

When users add a sticker — or a label — to their Instagram stories, anyone who sees the posts and taps the prompt can contribute to the public content chain, allowing their followers to see the posts and do the same.

In this case, the trend swiftly became animal lovers’ dream — a thread showcasing dogs on pool floats, dogs in Halloween costumes, dogs hiding under blankets and snoozing in their favorite spots. There were images of a whippet wearing a raincoat, rescue puppies on sandy beaches. Fluffy kittens, hamsters. Even a donkey.

But will 4 million trees be planted? Almost certainly not. Will any trees be planted? Unclear.

The account behind the idea said it quickly realized it had made a huge mistake.

“We actually posted it...But only for ten minutes...,” read a follow-up Instagram post from Plant A Tree Co., which has more than 1 million followers. “We immediately understood the potential this post had and believed we didn’t have the capabilities and resources to keep our end of the post,” the organization explained, adding that it had deleted the post.

“We thought only a small portion of our followers would do it totaling to a couple hundred trees max, but we noticed this wasn’t the case,” Zack Saadioui, who said he was behind the Instagram campaign and ran the account, told The Washington Post.

In a statement, Saadioui said when he first initiated the viral campaign, he was not familiar with how Instagram’s new sticker feature worked.

“We simply wanted to check out a new Instagram sticker and thought we’d use it in a fun way that can benefit the environment,” he said. “So we made the post not really understanding how ‘Add yours’ works.”

On its website, Plant A Tree Co. does not list information about where it is based. And while it claims to have planted more than 6,500 trees to date, it does not specify how, where, when or by whom.

This is not the first time Plant A Tree Co has been accused of making promises to plant trees that it couldn’t keep. In 2019, the Instagram account came under widespread scrutiny after it promised to plant trees for every time someone reposted a post from their account. The account did not fulfill its pledge — among “unintentional mistakes” that Saadioui admits “set a negative tone for the brand” that he has always hoped would serve to help the planet.

After the incident in 2019, when Saadioui was 21 and a college junior, he said, “We addressed it, stopped the post and stated that it would be impossible to plant.”

This time, although Plant A Tree moved quickly to remove the original post, the sticker continued to spread online, Saadioui said, which became a huge issue. “The sticker continues to spread even if the originator deletes it,” he said.

Many still coming across the post after it was deleted appeared confused about who exactly was behind the trend, leading many to pose variations of the same question: “Ok but WHO is going to plant all these trees for pet pictures?”

Meta, formerly Facebook, which owns Instagram, told The Washington Post in a statement, “The ‘we’ll plant one tree for every pet picture’ trend shows the power of the Instagram community to raise awareness on important topics.”

Meta said that the trend, “Like all other ‘Add Yours’ sticker threads,” was launched “by an independent Instagram account — not Instagram.”

Now, Plant A Tree Co., is not just asking for pictures — it’s asking for money. The account is seeking donations on Instagram, which Saadioui says will be given to the nonprofit organization Trees for the Future.

“Though we don’t have the ability to plant 4 million trees we can use this awareness to make a lasting impact,” the account said as it announced a fundraising campaign. “Please tag all your friends, celebrities, and @instagram so they can see this and so we can ACTUALLY plant 4 million trees,” the account wrote.

On social media Tuesday, many skeptics continued to dissect Plant A Tree Co.’s intentions.

“What? Posting pet pictures on Instagram *didn’t* make an organisation you’ve never heard of suddenly plant 4 million trees? Shocked,” read one tweet.