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Abstract and Figures

Content shared on social media platforms can impact public perceptions of wildlife. These perceptions, which are in part shaped by context (e.g. non-naturalistic setting, presence of a human), can influence people’s desires to interact with or acquire wild animals as pets. However, few studies have examined whether this holds true for wild animals featured in viral videos. This study reports on opportunistic data collected on Twitter before, during, and after a video that featured a habituated ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), called “Sefo”, in southern Madagascar went ‘viral’ (i.e. circulated rapidly on the internet). Our dataset of 13,953 tweets (from an 18.5-week time period in early 2016) referencing lemurs was collected using targeted keywords on the Twitonomy Service. We identified 613 individual tweets about people wanting a lemur as a pet. In addition, 744 tweets that were captured in our dataset linked to the Sefo viral video. We found that as the number of tweets about the viral video increased, so did the number of tweets where an individual wanted to have a lemur as a pet. Most tweets (91%) did not make reference to a specific species of lemur, but when they did, they often (82%) referenced ring-tailed lemurs (L. catta), ruffed lemurs (Varecia spp.), and mouse lemurs (Microcebus spp.). This study serves as a case study to consider how viral content can impact how wild animals are perceived. We close by noting that social media sites like Twitter, which are increasingly providing their users with news and information, should carefully consider how information about wild animals is shared on their platforms, as it may impact animal welfare.
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A viral video and pet lemurs on Twitter
Tara A. ClarkeID
*, Kim E. Reuter
, Marni LaFleur
, Melissa S. Schaefer
1Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, United States of
America, 2Pet Lemur Survey Initiative, housed by the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States
of America, 3Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States of America,
4Lemur Love Inc., San Diego, California, United States of America, 5Department of Anthropology,
University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, United States of America, 6Anthropology Program,
Salt Lake City Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States of America
These authors contributed equally to this work.
Content shared on social media platforms can impact public perceptions of wildlife. These
perceptions, which are in part shaped by context (e.g. non-naturalistic setting, presence of a
human), can influence people’s desires to interact with or acquire wild animals as pets. How-
ever, few studies have examined whether this holds true for wild animals featured in viral
videos. This study reports on opportunistic data collected on Twitter before, during, and
after a video that featured a habituated ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), called “Sefo”, in
southern Madagascar went ‘viral’ (i.e. circulated rapidly on the internet). Our dataset of
13,953 tweets (from an 18.5-week time period in early 2016) referencing lemurs was col-
lected using targeted keywords on the Twitonomy Service. We identified 613 individual
tweets about people wanting a lemur as a pet. In addition, 744 tweets that were captured in
our dataset linked to the Sefo viral video. We found that as the number of tweets about the
viral video increased, so did the number of tweets where an individual wanted to have a
lemur as a pet. Most tweets (91%) did not make reference to a specific species of lemur, but
when they did, they often (82%) referenced ring-tailed lemurs (L.catta), ruffed lemurs (Vare-
cia spp.), and mouse lemurs (Microcebus spp.). This study serves as a case study to con-
sider how viral content can impact how wild animals are perceived. We close by noting that
social media sites like Twitter, which are increasingly providing their users with news and
information, should carefully consider how information about wild animals is shared on their
platforms, as it may impact animal welfare.
The Internet has been gaining importance as an information source across the world [1]. By
the end of 2016, almost half (47%) of the world’s population was using the Internet [2]. In the
United States of America and in western Europe, many people are now getting their news via
social media [35]. In mid-2017, for example, 67% of Americans reported getting at least some
of their news from social media [6].
PLOS ONE | January 9, 2019 1 / 15
Citation: Clarke TA, Reuter KE, LaFleur M, Schaefer
MS (2019) A viral video and pet lemurs on Twitter.
PLoS ONE 14(1): e0208577.
Editor: Jarosław Jankowski, West Pomeranian
University of Technology, POLAND
Received: October 29, 2017
Accepted: November 20, 2018
Published: January 9, 2019
Copyright: ©2019 Clarke et al. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Data Availability Statement: All data underlying
the study are available for download in S1 Dataset
via Supporting Information.
Funding: The authors received no specific funding
for this work.
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
In the Western world, there is some evidence to suggest that science-related information is
not shared or received by the viewer in the same way as non-science news on social media plat-
forms. For example, a nationally-representative web-based survey of 4,024 U.S. adults adminis-
tered by the Pew Research Center in June 2017 found that, in contrast to more general news,
social media only played a small role in informing Americans about science [7]. This survey
also found that, though most social media users saw science-related posts, only a quarter fol-
lowed science social media accounts and 21% of users did not see any science-related posts on
their social media at all [7]. In addition, 52% of social media users surveyed distrusted, rather
than trusted (26% of users), social media posts that they saw about science [7]. For compari-
son, another survey–again administered by Pew Research Center, albeit in March 2017 of
4,151 U.S. adults–found that only 5% and 33% of social media users based in the United States
have “a lot of trust” or “some trust”, in general, in the information they see on social media [8].
More broadly, there is evidence that social media websites can be an influential news source to
the general public, especially when trust in traditional media sources decreases (in the United
States [9], in Israel [10], across 11 countries [11]).
There are many examples of social media platforms being used in a way that results in posi-
tive conservation outcomes through the sharing of environmental or scientific information.
For example, social media platforms have been used to increase support for integrated sustain-
ability and conservation initiatives [12], raise funds for conservation (e.g., crowdfunding) [13],
and serve as a place where people can voice their concern about the illegal extraction of threat-
ened and endangered species from the wild [14]. The positive impacts of social media platform
use for animal conservation efforts include the removal of videos of wild animals kept as pets
that have been illegally taken from the wild from social media sites [14,15] and its use to cost-
effectively launch outreach-platforms aimed at bringing information about conservation pro-
grams in Madagascar, for example, to social media users in the United States and Europe [16,
17]. In another example, Barbary Macaque Conservation in the Rif launched a Facebook page
to promote their research and raise awareness of the threats Barbary macaques (Macaca sylva-
nus) face in the wild, in particular being targeted for the pet trade [18]. This spurred their Face-
book followers to report sightings of illegal pet macaques, resulting in four confiscations [18].
On the other hand, the information shared on social media sites can also have negative
environmental outcomes, even if unintentional. This could be partly because only 16% to 35%
of people pay attention to the source of news that they see on social media (in western Euro-
pean countries) [3]. The literature, which has focused primarily on more traditional media
types (i.e. not social media) has shown that images presenting animals in a non-natural setting,
especially where context is missing, can result in a range of misperceptions about wild animals
[1921]. For example, in Ross et al. 2011 [20], viewers who saw images of chimpanzees (Pan
troglodytes) standing next to a human in a photograph, were 30% likely to want to own one as
a pet and 35% more likely to assume the wild populations were not threatened. Likewise,
Leighty et al. 2015 [22] found that photographs of capuchin monkeys (Cebus sp.), squirrel
monkeys (Saimiri sp.), and ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), in a non-natural setting in contact
with a person increased their desirability as pets and increased the likelihood of viewers believ-
ing the animal was not endangered.
‘Viral’ information is one aspect of social media that remains understudied as it pertains to
environmental information. Virality of content is driven in part by emotional experiences, as
well as the strength of the emotion being felt [23], with pleasant emotions having a greater
influence on sharing than unpleasant [24]. It is not rare for footage of animals, sometimes wild
and often domestic, to be shared widely across the internet, occasionally ‘going viral’ [25]. The
consequences of this viral information, though sometimes the subject of popular media stories
[e.g. 25], have rarely been assessed in the peer-reviewed literature. One of the most well-
Viral video and pet lemurs
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known peer-reviewed examples is the 2009 viral YouTube video that showed a pet pygmy slow
loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) being ‘tickled’ by its owner [15,26]. Although pygmy slow lorises
are Vulnerable (VU) and protected via CITES Appendix I [27], up to one-quarter of commen-
tators indicated that they wanted a slow loris as a pet [15]. The authors concluded that
although few of the commentators were from slow loris range countries, the potential negative
impacts of viral videos reinforcing people’s likelihood of wanting to acquire a slow loris as a
pet could be high enough to warrant the inclusion of permanent warnings embedded in online
videos of threatened species [15].
Current study
In April 2016, a ‘viral’ video made rounds on the Internet featuring two children in a rural area
of Madagascar scratching a habituated ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), called “Sefo” (meaning
‘chief’), on the back (hereafter referred to as the ‘viral video’). The video showed the lemur pat-
ting its back (which was interpreted by most viewers to mean that the lemur was ‘asking’ for
more back scratches from the children). This video was uploaded onto Facebook and YouTube
in April 2016. The original Facebook post was viewed ~20 million times within a week of
being published [28]. The video was shared widely on Facebook and on Twitter, as well as by
several popular media platforms such as The Today Show (a morning talk show broadcast
from New York City) [29], and online news articles aiming to educate the public on the con-
text of the video. Viewership of the video decreased dramatically after the viral video ‘peaked’
(Fig 1) and the Facebook video has only accrued ~2 million more views in the almost 2.5 years
since April 2016. The original YouTube video has since been removed, though it is still avail-
able on YouTube, having been uploaded to many YouTube accounts not associated with the
original owner of the video.
The release of the video happened to coincide with ongoing data collection that the authors
of this study had initiated, whereby we were pulling tweets about pet lemur ownership (using a
series of keywords) from the Twitter Application Programming Interface (API) on a weekly
basis. Twitter [30] is a social media platform with 328 million active users and is popular for
news distribution in the United States of America (USA) [6], and the United Kingdom (21%
of social media users use Twitter as a news source) [3]. Non-English speaking countries use
Twitter as a news source infrequently compared to other social media sites [3]. Twitter is not
the largest of the social media platforms, but in the USA, the number of users that receive news
on Twitter has been increasing for several years (52% of users in 2013 to 59% in 2016 and 74%
in 2017) [6]. In 2017, the portion of users who received news on Twitter in the USA was com-
parable to Facebook and Reddit but higher than YouTube, LinkedIn, and a range of other
social media platforms [6].
In this study, we used the opportunity to examine whether a viral media image of a lemur
in a non-natural setting (i.e. in a rural village in Madagascar, in contact with children) had an
impact on how often people tweeted about wanting lemurs as pets. We present data collected
before, during, and after the viral video was shared online.
Materials and methods
Lemurs are an ancient and diverse primate radiation found only on the island of Madagascar.
They compose 20% of the world’s primate species and 30% of family-level diversity, though
they occupy a land mass that is just 1.3 to 2.9% of the other three land masses where extant
nonhuman primates occur (Africa, Asia, Neotropics) [31]. Threats to lemur survival include
habitat loss/degradation [32], bushmeat hunting [33,34], and live-capture primarily for the
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PLOS ONE | January 9, 2019 4 / 15
within-country illegal pet trade [35]. More than 30 species of lemur have been reported as pets
(defined as being wild captured and dependent upon humans for food) within Madagascar,
with ring-tailed lemurs being particularly popular for the illegal, in-country pet trade [35].
Collecting data from Twitter
In this study, we used data from Twitter [30] only. Initially, when we began collecting data
(prior to the release of the ‘viral video’, which we could not have anticipated), our intent was to
passively collect social media status updates about captive and pet lemurs. Our research ques-
tions had been: 1) how many people tweet about wanting lemurs as pets?; 2) what species of
lemur do people often want to keep as a pet?; 3) how are people interacting with lemurs in per-
son and in popular media?; and 4) do virtual or in-person interactions with lemurs seem to be
linked with an online expression of interest to have a pet lemur?. It is within this framing, that
we were opportunistically able to examine the impact of the viral video on our dataset.
We chose to collect data from Twitter, as opposed to other social media sites, for several
reasons. First, and advised by two colleagues knowledgeable on the subject (see Acknowledg-
ments), it was clear that Twitter would allow for the following (in contrast to other major social
media sites): 1) Twitter allows for direct access to search user status updates and real-time
information on trending keywords; 2) Twitter also provides access to a small amount of his-
toric data, allowing us to pull information from the Application Programming Interface (API)
once a week instead of more frequently; and 3) we could access Twitter data through third-
party sites easily, and download the data into Excel for sorting and coding. In addition, the
topics of discussion on Twitter were thematically overlapping with our research questions,
hence our focus on this social media site as opposed to some other options. Because of these
attributes, and the limitations on resources that would have allowed for data analysis from
multiple platforms, we chose to focus our efforts on collecting data from Twitter. We acknowl-
edge that data from other social media sites (particularly Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram)
would have been useful to include in our study.
Data from Twitter were collected from January 1
2016 to May 7
2016 via the Twitonomy
Service [36]. All ‘terms of service’ were complied with during data collection. Twitonomy is a
service which, for a small fee, will pull data (such as tweets and information about the profiles
of individuals publishing those tweets) from the API based on pre-selected keywords. Nineteen
targeted English-language keywords (including plurals of all words where appropriate) were
employed to capture tweets regarding captive and pet lemurs (Table 1). We focused on the
English language for two reasons: 1) as a practical mechanism for keeping the dataset to a man-
ageable size, and 2) because the study authors are all native English speakers.
Although only English-language keywords were utilized, tweets in other languages were
occasionally captured in our search results. In these cases, good faith efforts were made to read any
tweets in German and French (i.e., languages in which the authors had fluency). However, most of
these German and French-language tweets were not directly relevant to the study and were
excluded. Tweets in other languages were excluded from consideration. We did not use translation
platforms like Google Translate as the accuracy in translation can be low [37,38], especially when
slang words are used or words are truncated (as we observed to be common in the English-lan-
guage tweets), which is likely due to the character count limitation of tweets on Twitter.
Fig 1. Searches for the term ‘pet lemur’ on Google (A) and YouTube (B) from August 2013 to August 2018. Information downloaded from the open-access Google
Trends database. The y-axis, ‘interest over time’ is a metric derived by Google which is relative to the highest point on the chart (i.e. a value of 100 indicates peak
popularity of the search term for the time period considered). The area shaded in grey shows the weeks during and just after the viral lemur video was shared on social
media sites.
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We acknowledge that the use of pre-selected keywords (e.g. not using the keyword ‘monkey’
but focusing explicitly on lemurs at the outset) is a limitation of the paper. We chose these key-
words through an iterative process whereby we identified keywords that pulled tweets from the
Twitter API that directly responded to our initial research questions, but also did not result in an
unmanageable dataset. It became clear during the keyword setting process, that individual tweets
(and sometimes entire tweet conversations/chats) would need to be read by researchers (and that
automated programs could not sort and categorize tweets for us) because of the nuance and con-
text of many of the tweets. This process likely biased our dataset by excluding tweets where lemurs
were referenced by the general public as monkeys or other animals. For example, several tweets
were pulled from the Twitter API using our keywords (though we excluded these tweets from
analysis) that showed people incorrectly using the word ‘lemur’ to refer to other types of animals
(e.g., slow lorises, Nycticebus spp., for example; Nekaris et al. 2013 [15] noted that people com-
menting on online videos of slow lorises did sometimes refer to them as lemurs).
The resulting dataset contained almost 14,000 tweets (see Results) as well as some or all of
the following information: date and time of the tweet; profile information of the author of the
tweet; text of tweet; URL of tweet; and the number of interactions that others had with the
tweet (e.g. number of re-tweets). Tweets were categorized as relevant if the tweet indicated: 1)
that a person wanted to have a lemur as a pet and/or 2) linked to the viral video. We also
recorded whether tweets involved or referenced human-lemur contact at a zoo and about pri-
vately-owned lemurs. These data and a brief analysis of tweets about human-lemur contact at
zoos and about privately-owned lemurs can be found via S1 Table and S1 Fig.
Tweets were categorized as relevant via a three-step process, whereby the almost 14,000
unique tweets were manually read three separate times by the same researcher (KER) on
Table 1. Keywords used to capture tweets regarding pet lemurs, number of tweets pulled from the Twitter API
using each keyword, and number of tweets about people wanting to have a pet lemur.
Keywords used Number of tweets
(n = 13,953 tweets)
Number of tweets about wanting a pet lemur
(n = 613 tweets from 582 people)
Zoboomafo/Zaboomafo130 0
Wantlemur896 672
Touchlemur50 0
Selllemur14 2
Purchaselemur12 2
Petlemur1035 117
Own lemur5 2
Our lemur639 0
My lemur3934 89
Legallemur16 4
KingJulien/ kingjulien 3178 2
Julienlemur85 1
Illegallemur310 1
Havelemur2423 53
Haslemur960 5
Domesticlemur7 0
Calmlemur21 0
Buylemur227 46
Breederlemur3 1
Auction lemur 1 0
Aggressive lemur 7 0
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different days (first when the data were downloaded each week from Twitonomy, a second
time generally a few weeks later to compare against more recently downloaded tweets, and a
third time at the end of the data collection period to compare against all tweets downloaded).
This three-step process was instituted to limit the subjectivity of whether or not tweets were
considered relevant to the study and the inclusion/exclusion of tweets was appropriate. If KER
was not sure whether a tweet was relevant or not, the tweet was initially marked as ‘maybe rele-
vant’ during the first read and then, in the second and third reads, the entire twitter conversa-
tion/chat within which the tweet was found (to look at any accompanying images or links that
were included in the tweet) was reviewed in its entirety, to make a subjective determination as
to whether the tweet was relevant or not. The additional step of examining contextual informa-
tion usually served to exclude a tweet from consideration. We acknowledge that there is sub-
jectivity as to whether or not tweets were included or excluded; the three-step process
described above aimed to ensure that the same interpretation of tweets was used throughout
the study. The full dataset is publicly available for download in the S1 Dataset.
In order to have consistent and reliable interpretation and classification of tweets, we estab-
lished the following classification guidelines. First, tweets were classified as people ‘wanting a
pet lemur’ if: 1) the tweet explicitly noted that a person wanted to own or have a lemur
(whether or not that person indicated an ability to have the lemur; hereafter referred to as
‘wanting a pet lemur’); or 2) inquired about how to procure a lemur. Tweets where it was not
clear what the person was tweeting about (e.g., when a person was using the word ‘lemur’ to
refer to another person or a non-lemur animal) were excluded from the analysis, but only after
the three-step process was followed (as described above), the entire twitter conversation/chat
(and other materials linked to in the tweet) were considered, and when it was absolutely cer-
tain that the tweet was not relevant to this study. Notes were taken if the person referenced a
specific species of lemur, referenced popular media, or posted a photo of a lemur.
In regard to including tweets about the viral video, we included only tweets that linked
directly to the viral video. We did not consider tweets about lemurs that did not directly link
to the video, even if the text of the tweet suggested that the author had watched the video.
Statistical analyses
Statistical analyses were conducted in JMP software [39]. Averages presented in the results using
n = 18 weeks as replicates, are excluding the incomplete 19
week of data that was collected.
Kruskal-Wallis Rank Sums Tests were used to test whether the number of tweets about
wanting a pet lemur differed by month (n = 4 months; with Wilcoxon Each Pair tests used as a
post-hoc test).
A standard least squares regression was used to test whether the number of tweets about
people wanting a pet lemur increased as references to the ‘viral video’ increased. In this analy-
sis, the dependent variable was the proportion of people per week (n = 18 weeks) who tweeted
a link to the viral video (excluding those who—in the same tweet—stated that they wanted a
lemur). The independent variable was the proportion of people who stated that they wanted a
lemur per week (n = 18 weeks; excluding those who—in the same tweet—linked to the viral
video). The number of ‘viral video’ tweets was natural log-transformed prior to analysis to
meet assumptions of normality.
Parameters of the dataset
The dataset contained 13,953 tweets, collected during an 18.5-week period (January 1, 2016
through May 7, 2016), of which 2,294 (16%) were deemed broadly relevant in that pet or
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captive lemurs were the topic of the tweets (full dataset publicly available for download in S1
Dataset). Keywords primarily solicited results in the English language.
A total of 613 (4%) tweets expressed someone ‘wanting a pet lemur’ and 774 (6%) tweets
linked to the ‘viral video’ (see Methods). It should be noted that these are not mutually exclu-
sive, and 18 individuals who referenced the viral video (out of n = 765 tweets about the viral
video) also stated that they wanted a lemur as a pet.
A further 148 (1%) tweets described human-lemur contact at a zoo and 359 (3%) tweets ref-
erenced a privately-owned pet lemur (a lemur not kept at a zoo). The rate that tweets were
published about human-lemur contact at zoos (i.e. tweets published per week) did not change
during the duration of the study (see S1 Fig.). Tweets about both human-lemur contact at zoos
and privately-owned lemurs did not increase as tweets referencing the viral video increased
(see S1 Fig.). A large number of tweets in our dataset were included as a result of the keywords
targeting references to ‘King Julien’ and to ‘Zaboomafoo’ (n = 3,263 for ‘King Julien’ keywords;
n = 130 for the ‘Zabomafoo’ keywords). However, they were rarely mentioned in tweets where
people stated that they wanted to own pet lemur or where people reported having seen or oth-
erwise interacted with a lemur in captivity (<1% of tweets, n = 28 tweets, S1 Fig.). These data
are not discussed further in this paper, but a brief analysis is provided via S1 Appendix and S2
Wanting lemurs as pets
A total of 613 (4%) tweets from 582 Twitter users over 18.5 weeks were about a person wanting
a lemur as a pet (34 ±17 tweets per week or 5% ±3% of tweets in our total dataset per week,
mean ±st. dev., n = 18 weeks; Fig 2). The number of tweets published about wanting lemurs as
a pet differed by month (Kruskal-Wallis Rank Sums Test, Chi-square = 10.1020, DF = 3,
P = 0.0177, weeks as replicates within n = 4 months; Fig 3). The number of tweets published
about someone wanting a pet lemur was higher in April than in January (Wilcoxon Each Pair
Test, Z = 2.237, P = 0.0200) and March (Wilcoxon Each Pair Test, Z = 1.968, P = 0.0491), but
not different than in February (Wilcoxon Each Pair Test, Z = 1.845, P = 0.0651). The number
of tweets about someone wanting a pet lemur were fairly low (46/week) throughout the
study period except for in the two weeks coinciding with the release of the viral video (Fig 2).
Note that we did not find any evidence that people were actively buying or selling lemurs
using Twitter.
The viral video
Many tweets were captured in our dataset that linked to the ‘viral video’ (see Methods, n = 744
tweets). The tweets that linked to the viral video did not contain references to other lemurs
that people may have seen or interacted with in captivity. Most of these tweets were published
in April 2016 (27%, n = 210 in week 16 of our dataset; 62%, n = 479 in week 17; 9%, n = 68 in
week 18; Fig 2). Only 19 tweets were published on Twitter linking to this video outside of
weeks 16, 17, and 18 (Fig 2). The number of tweets about someone wanting to own a pet lemur
increased with the number of tweets published linking to the viral video (Standard Least
Squares Regression: F-Ratio = 3.9673, DF = 3, P = 0.0328, R
= 0.676094).
Lemur species referenced in tweets
Of the 613 individuals that tweeted about wanting a pet lemur as a pet, 91% (n = 555) did not
provide any indication as to what species they were referencing. In some cases, however, the
tweets explicitly named a species or was accompanied by a photograph. The following species
were mentioned or featured in photographs: Lemur catta (n = 47), Varecia rubra (n = 4),
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PLOS ONE | January 9, 2019 8 / 15
Microcebus sp. (n = 3), Eulemur collaris (n = 1), Propithecus sp. (n = 1), and V.variegata
(n = 1). Lemur catta and V.rubra were two of the three species that people most commonly
tweeted about coming into contact with (see S2 Table). In addition, L.catta was the species of
lemur featured in the ‘viral video’.
In this study, we found that a small but consistent number of people are tweeting about want-
ing a lemur as a pet (4% of our dataset over 18.5 weeks), even as we found no evidence of buy-
ing or selling (legally or illegally) of lemurs using the Twitter platform. Though only 9% of
people referred to specific species of lemurs in their tweets, when they did, they often (82% of
the time) referenced ring-tailed lemurs (L.catta). We found that the number of tweets about
someone wanting to own a pet lemur increased with the number of tweets published linking to
the viral video. It is clear that the direct threat to wild lemur species from the viral video is very
low. We consider, however, the indirect implications of this video as another instance in
which anthropomorphized media of lemurs could incorrectly influence public perception
about the threatened status of lemurs in Madagascar.
Wanting a lemur as a pet
The number of people who ordinarily tweet, in English, about wanting a lemur as a pet is
small, but our data indicate that the number of tweets where someone wanted a pet lemur
Fig 2. Number of tweets indicating someone wanting to own a pet lemur and numberof tweets linking to the ‘viral video’.
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increased as the number of tweets linking to the viral video increased. This increase was not
observed when looking at other types of lemur interactions that people tweeted about (e.g.
lemurs in zoos or privately held lemurs, see S1 Fig.). This is interesting information, even if the
absolute number of people tweeting about wanting a pet lemur is low, because it provides a
context for how viral videos can reinforce interest in having wild animals as pets (a concept
discussed by [15]). Experimental studies have shown that when people are shown a photo-
graph of primates in non-natural settings together with people (compared to control photo-
graphs of primates in natural settings), there is an increase in the likelihood of viewers wanting
to own a primate as a pet [20,22]. Our study suggests that this pattern is true also for viral
Ring-tailed lemurs in popular culture
It is not surprising that ring-tailed lemurs were the most popular species mentioned in our
tweet dataset, even beyond the fact that it was a ring-tailed lemur that was featured in the viral
video. Ring-tailed lemurs are the most commonly kept primate in captivity in the world, and it
was estimated that over 2,500 were being kept in zoos in 2009 [40]. Almost one-third of Amer-
icans (30%) have encountered science information in the past year at a zoo or aquarium [7],
and our dataset included many people tweeting about the ring-tailed lemurs they were able
to interact with at these zoos (see S1 Fig.). In addition, ring-tailed lemurs have become more
visible to the general public and have been propelled into popular culture. For example,
Fig 3. Number of tweets published by month indicating someone wanting to own a pet lemur (with weeks as replicates). Letters indicate significant differences. The
boxes highlight the quartiles while the whiskers indicate the variability outside the outer quartiles.
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DreamWork’s Madagascar released a feature-length animated film, Madagascar, in 2005,
which starred ‘King Julien’ an anthropomorphized ring-tailed lemur. The franchise now has a
total of three feature length films and a television series spin-off entitled All Hail King Julien.
To date, the franchise has grossed over 564.1 million USD (worldwide unadjusted revenue)
Conservation implications
It is clear that the direct threat to lemurs in the wild from the sentiments expressed on Twitter,
at least as captured in this study, is very low (as lemurs cannot be extracted from the wild and
exported out of Madagascar for the pet trade [42]). Pet lemurs in the United States of America
and the United Kingdom (where the majority of our tweets were likely from), are sourced
from captive-bred populations that were taken out of Madagascar many decades ago. This is in
contrast to the Nekaris et al. 2013 [15] study where captive reproductive success for slow
lorises is low enough that most lorises in pet shops do not come from accredited breeding facil-
ities and are instead taken illegally from the wild.
However, this study serves to make the case that viral video content (which in this case
reached at least 20 million people in a matter of weeks) could reinforce misperceptions about
wild animals and increase the number of people in a population who want to have one as a pet.
This is not a novel concept, having been examined–with more or less robust analyses–for the
movie industry across many studies. For example, there were increases in Dalmation registra-
tions seven years after the release of Disney’s 101 Dalmations film, which may have been attrib-
utable to the film (though not conclusively) [43], as well as studies, on the global trade of green
iguanas (Iguana iguana) in the three years after the release of the first Jurassic Park film [44]
and the owl pet trade in Indonesia following the Harry Potter films [45]. However, more in-
depth analyses have not found a link between the movie industry and an increase in the owner-
ship of wild animals as pets, including one study on clown fish sales following the release of
Disney’s Finding Nemo film in 2003 [46] and another on the owl pet trade in the UK following
the Harry Potter films [47].
We echo some of the discussion points highlighted in Nekaris et al. 2013 [15], whereby the
authors call for better regulations of media sharing websites such that content showing wild
animals can be flagged, presented to the viewer with a disclaimer, or removed. Our research
raises the question of the role and responsibility of Twitter as a platform where potentially
harmful information about wild animals can be easily shared to potentially millions of users in
a very short period of time. Twitter policies do not address animal welfare issues specifically,
but broadly state that, “You may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or in further-
ance of illegal activities. By using Twitter, you agree to comply with all applicable laws govern-
ing your online conduct and content” [48]. In mid-2017, Twitter appeared to be piloting a
mechanism whereby users could flag offensive content [49], but this feature has not yet been
Other large internet companies have instituted relatively simple policies, with the aim of
benefiting wild animals–either in captivity or in the wild. In 2016, TripAdvisor (an online
travel site with 455 million unique visitors per month and listings for 7.5 million hotels, restau-
rants, and attractions) [50], banned ticket sales to attractions that allowed human contact with
wild animals because of animal welfare concerns [51]. In 2009, ebay banned the sale of illegal
elephant ivory on its site [52], though recent news reports suggest that this policy is not very
effective [53].
We also encourage well-meaning actors, like conservationists, primatologists, and/or non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) to take a cautious and thoughtful approach with the
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PLOS ONE | January 9, 2019 11 / 15
imaging (photos, videos) and conservation messaging that they develop and share online. As
there are, and have been, instances where this was not the case. For example, in 2016, the Mad-
agascar Office of National Tourism (ONTM) launched a campaign on Facebook and Twitter
to promote travel to Madagascar by asking tourists to post photos of themselves with captive
lemurs [54]. These photos were posted online without much context, and some showed ille-
gally captive lemurs. Following outreach to ONTM, the photos were removed, before they had
a chance to be shared too widely on the internet. We show here, the unintentional sharing of
images/video featuring lemurs in non-natural settings and close to humans, can have indirect
impacts on how English-speaking people perceive these wild animals. This may also be the
case in Madagascar, where there is already published anecdotal evidence that ‘selfies’ posted
with pet lemurs (often on Facebook) can show wealth or are considered ‘cool’ [55]. Therefore,
any conservationists, primatologists, and/or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should
be aware of this context when they put information about lemurs on social media, as there is
the risk that the information is misperceived both by English and non-English speaking
Supporting information
S1 Appendix. Additional methods and analyses.
S2 Appendix. Additional results.
S1 Table. Keywords used to capture tweets regarding pet lemurs, number of tweets using
each keyword, number of tweets people expressing desire for a pet lemur, and number peo-
ple tweeting about human-lemur contact (zoos and privately owned).
S2 Table. Species of lemur with which people on Twitter had interacted and IUCN red list
S1 Fig. Number of tweets indicating someone wanting to own a pet lemur, number of
tweets linking to the ‘viral video’, number of tweets about someone seeing a privately-
owned pet lemur, and number of tweets about human-lemur interactions at zoos.
S1 Dataset. Dataset for PLOS ONE.
The authors would like to thank Toby Schaeffer (Front-End Developer) and Terence Eden
(Open Standards Lead for the British Government Digital Service) for providing pro-bono con-
sulting on social media Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). We also wish to thank the
three anonymous reviewers for their feedback, which significantly improved this paper.
Author Contributions
Conceptualization: Tara A. Clarke, Kim E. Reuter, Marni LaFleur, Melissa S. Schaefer.
Data curation: Kim E. Reuter.
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PLOS ONE | January 9, 2019 12 / 15
Formal analysis: Kim E. Reuter.
Methodology: Tara A. Clarke, Marni LaFleur.
Writing – original draft: Tara A. Clarke.
Writing – review & editing: Tara A. Clarke, Kim E. Reuter, Marni LaFleur, Melissa S.
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Supplementary resources (6)

... They note that a species of bird, which was locally present, correlated with more people searching for information on that species (Schuetz et al., 2015). Given that about half of the global population uses the internet, it is therefore a useful tool for studying people's knowledge and perceptions of wildlife (Clarke et al., 2019). The implications for how social media shapes public perception of wild animals-which in turn impacts their welfare as individuals or conservation as a species-is demonstrated in this review of the literature. ...
... How does social media promote inappropriate encounters or relationships with respect to wild animals and their sale as companion animals? Clarke et al. (2019) analyzed data collected opportunistically via Twitter surrounding a viral video of a companion animal ring-tailed lemur in 2016. They surveyed thousands of tweets and found 613 in which the authors declared their desire for a lemur as a pet. ...
... Indeed, the authors found that as the number of tweets increased and the video became popular, so did the number of tweets expressing a desire for a lemur. Clarke et al. (2019) concluded that, within the con nes of this study, there is likely little threat to wild lemur conservation, since companion animal lemurs in the United States and United Kingdom are captive bred and not traded within Madagascar. ...
... Social media could increase the desire for a pet primate [58,59]. Several famous individuals have posted selfies with pet primates. ...
... For example, Pizzatoru, is a galago with an Instagram account and has 240,000 followers. Comments posted in response to photos of primates often express a desire to own one [58,59]. Photos of celebrities with primates can be especially problematic because many consumers copy celebrities to enhance their own self-esteem [64]. ...
... Research has shown that when people see primates outside of their natural habitat, it can increase their desire to own a primate themselves (which can drive the extraction of primates from the wild in habitat countries), lead them to believe they are not endangered, and decreases the likelihood they will contribute to conservation [58,59,89,90]; all of these will impact wild populations. Ross and colleagues [89,90] report that 35% of respondents did not know chimpanzees were endangered because of their frequent presence in films and television shows. ...
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... Therefore, we can expect the representation of lemurs in zoos to also not be tightly correlated with conservation needs, but to be driven by other considerations. For example, some lemur species, such as the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), are zoo "stars", able to attract visitors due to their recognizable morphological features and behaviour, and are frequently portrayed in popular culture, nature documentaries and cartoons (Sauther et al., 2015;Clarke et al., 2019). Furthermore, unlike ring-tailed lemurs, which are omnivorous and have a flexible behaviour and ecology, not all lemur species are easily and viably kept in zoos, as husbandry constraints can influence welfare, survivorship and ability to breed under captive conditions (Caravaggi et al., 2018;Bailes et al., 2020). ...
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... Close contact with humans and expert veterinary care are often essential in this process, at least initially. However, photographs of that care can send the wrong message, especially when circulated without appropriate context, perpetuating rather than alleviating the inappropriate demand for primates as pets (Leighty et al. 2015;Clarke et al. 2019;Muehlenbein 2017;Freund et al. 2021). ...
... However, the illegal hunting of live, wild primates for international and domestic trade continues and is a concern for the survival of wild primate populations (Borgerson 2015;Shanee et al. 2017;Bergin et al. 2018, Estrada et al. 2018. Social media is identified as playing an increasing role in fuelling the ongoing legal and illegal trade of primates (Nekaris et al. 2013;Siriwat et al. 2019), and research has shown that online images of primates in the presence of humans fuels the desire for primate pet ownership (Leighty et al. 2015;Clarke et al. 2019). It has also been found that live primates displayed in anthropomorphic settings, or as caricatures, reduces the public's perception of the need to conserve the species (Ross et al. 2008;Ross et al. 2011). ...
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The island of Madagascar has a unique biodiversity, mainly located in the tropical forests of the island. This biodiversity is highly threatened by anthropogenic deforestation. Existing historical forest maps at national level are scattered and have substantial gaps which prevent an exhaustive assessment of long-term deforestation trends in Madagascar. In this study, we combined historical national forest cover maps (covering the period 1953-2000) with a recent global annual tree cover loss dataset (2001-2014) to look at six decades of deforestation and forest fragmentation in Madagascar (from 1953 to 2014). We produced new forest cover maps at 30 m resolution for the year 1990 and annually from 2000 to 2014 over the full territory of Madagascar. We estimated that Madagascar has lost 44% of its natural forest cover over the period 1953-2014 (including 37% over the period 1973-2014). Natural forests cover 8.9 Mha in 2014 (15% of the national territory) and include 4.4 Mha (50%) of moist forests, 2.6 Mha (29%) of dry forests, 1.7 Mha of spiny forests (19%) and 177 000 ha (2%) of mangroves. Since 2005, the annual deforestation rate has progressively increased in Madagascar to reach 99 000 ha/yr during 2010-2014 (corresponding to a rate of 1.1%/yr). Around half of the forest (46%) is now located at less than 100 m from the forest edge. Our approach could be replicated to other developing countries with tropical forest. Accurate forest cover change maps can be used to assess the effectiveness of past and current conservation programs and implement new strategies for the future. In particular, forest maps and estimates can be used in the REDD+ framework which aims at "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation" and for optimizing the current protected area network.
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Primates are kept as pets for various reasons including as indicators of wealth. Ownership of primates can also be influenced by religion. In Madagascar, thousands of lemurs are kept as pets, but the roles of wealth and religion in the ownership of captive lemurs have not been explored. We use quantitative and qualitative data to examine these aspects of ownership. Quantitative data were collected (July to August 2016) in households (n = 596) of 12 urban and rural towns in Madagascar using semi-structured interviews. International standards for research ethics were followed. Research was approved by an ethics oversight committee. We also opportunistically visited 13 religious facilities. Qualitative data were used to frame the context of the quantitative data. We found that pet lemur owners do not speak about their lemurs as a symbol of wealth, but non-owners associate pet lemurs with wealth. Therefore, status/wealth may be a motivating factor in the ownership of pet lemurs. We also found evidence that Catholic entities in Madagascar sometimes take in captive lemurs when the owner can no longer care for the animal (be-ing viewed as animal-friendly institutions). However, we did not find evidence of religion (institutional or traditional) influencing the ownership of pet lemurs.
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In recent decades, a substantial number of popular press articles have described an increase in demand for certain species in the pet trade due to films such as “Finding Nemo”, “Ninja turtles”, and “Harry Potter”. Nevertheless, such assertions are largely supported only by anecdotal evidence. Given the role of the wildlife trade in the spread of pathogens and zoonosis, the introduction of invasive species, the overexploitation of biodiversity, and the neglect of animal welfare, it is crucial to understand what factors drive demand for a species. Here, we investigate the effect the movie industry may have on wildlife trade by examining the relationship between the “Harry Potter” cultural phenomenon and the trade in owls within the United Kingdom (UK). We gathered data from the UK box office, book sales, and newspaper mentions, and examined their relationship with data from three independent sources reflecting the legal ownership of owls in the UK, which is likely to involve several thousands of animals. Additionally, we conducted a questionnaire survey with UK animal sanctuaries to study the presumed mass abandonment of pet owls when the film series ended. Counter to common assertions, we find no evidence that the “Harry Potter” phenomenon increased the legal trade in owls within the UK, even when possible time-lag effects were taken into account. Only one indicator, the number of movie tickets sold, showed a weak but contradictory relationship with demand for owls, with a recorded drop of 13% (95% CI: 3–27%) per 1 SD in tickets sold in the original analysis but an increase of 4% (95% CI: 0–8%) with a one-year lag. In addition, our results suggest that the end of the Harry Potter series did not have a noticeable impact on the number of owls abandoned in UK wildlife sanctuaries, as only two of the 46 animal sanctuaries we contacted independently stated they had seen an increase in owls received and believed this was due to the Harry Potter series. We highlight the importance of further research on the drivers of demand for wildlife to better manage this global trade, and discuss the potential to use films to positively influence behaviour.
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Bycatch and illegal wildlife trade on the dark web - Volume 51 Issue 3 - David L Roberts, Julio Hernandez-Castro
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Hundreds of species of wild-caught birds are offered for sale in the bird markets of Java and Bali, Indonesia, to meet the demand for the largely-domestic pet and songbird trade. In the past, owls were offered only in very small numbers in these bird markets but since the release of the Harry Potter series in Indonesia in the early 2000s their popularity as pets has increased. Whereas in the past owls were collective known as Burung Hantu (“Ghost birds”), in the bird markets they are now commonly referred to as Burung Harry Potter (“Harry Potter birds”). We made a retrospective quantitative assessment of the abundance of owls in the bird markets (1979–2010) and conducted 109 surveys in 20 bird markets in 2012–2016 to quantify owls in trade. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s owls were rarely recorded in Indonesia's bird markets, typically one or two and up to five per survey, and frequently no owls were recorded at all. The trade was largely confined to small scops owls. In the late 2000s more species were offered for sale, including barn and bay owls, and larger owl species such as wood-owls, eagle-owls and fish-owls; typically 10 + owls were observed per survey. In recent years, the number of owl species increased even more, and on average we recorded 17 owls per survey, yielding a total of 1810 owls, and in >90% of the surveys owls were present. In the larger bird markets in Jakarta and Bandung typically 30 to 60 owls are on offer of up to 8 species at a time. The number of owls as a proportion of all birds in the markets increased from <0.06% prior to 2002 to >0.43% post 2008, suggesting a delayed Harry Potter effect. Over this period, common species have become cheaper and less common ones have become more expensive. The owls are largely, if not exclusively, wild-caught and are sold into the domestic pet market. The release of Harry Potter films and novels in Indonesia coincided with the rise of the Internet and social media and, with some delay, the emergence of pet owl interest groups on Java and Bali, thus preventing us to demonstrate a causal Harry Potter effect on the owl trade. The overall popularity of owls as pets in Indonesia has risen to such an extent that it may imperil the conservation of some of the less abundant species. Inclusion of owls on Indonesia's protected species list, alongside all diurnal raptors, may be a first step to mitigate the negative effects of this emerging trend.
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Global audiences are increasingly being exposed to digital media with fictitious storylines that draw on animal characters involuntarily entering wildlife trades. An understudied problem in wildlife trade is the potential for motion pictures to influence their audience's desire to become more acquainted, often via acquisition, with animals portrayed in the films. The 2003 Disney motion picture Finding Nemo connected audiences with a wildlife trade already commonplace: the marine aquarium trade. In this trade, fisheries supply live coral reef organisms to millions of public and private aquaria worldwide. Here, we examine the perception and reality of Finding Nemo's impact (coined the “Nemo Effect”) on the fisheries of the species complex representing the film's primary protagonist “Nemo” (Amphiprion ocellaris/percula). Import and export figures show little evidence for fan-based purchases of wild-caught fish immediately (within 1.5 years of release) following the film. We argue that the perceived impact on these species, driven by popular media with an emotive but scientifically uninformed approach to conserving coral reef ecosystems, can be more damaging to the cause of conservation than helpful. This perspective is intended to encourage marine aquarium trade stakeholders to consider the ecological and social repercussions of both media driven consumption and opposition to the trade. Using lessons learned from Finding Nemo, we discuss the likely impacts the sequel, Finding Dory, will have on wild populations of its protagonist “Dory” (Paracanthurus hepatus).
Conference Paper
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Conservation of endangered species is difficult to achieve alone. Many conservation scientists understand what is needed to conserve and protect species from extinction, but implementation often requires interdisciplinary expertise, collaboration, and agreement across social, cultural and political boundaries. In Madagascar, the publication of the IUCN’s “Lemurs of Madagascar: A Strategy for their Conservation 2013–2016” outlined field researchers’ obligations to protect lemurs. However, insufficient external communication and stakeholder engagement have been hurdles to conservation action plans in the past. In response, the IUCN Primate Specialist Group launched the Lemur Conservation Network (LCN) in March 2015. Since then, the LCN has gained over 50 member organizations (NGOs, academic institutions, zoos) from 6 countries working in all of Madagascar’s 22 administrative regions and aiming to protect 38 different lemur species. The LCN has elevated the profile of the Lemur Action Plan, gaining media coverage in The Independent, Radio France International, and multiple national/regional media outlets (in 4 languages) and reaching 30,000 people per week on Facebook and 2,200 followers on Twitter within 8 months of launching. This platform, which was founded on ~US$500 and three volunteers, is an example of how social media and collaboration can bring organizations together and amplify their impact via a unified online voice. Resource-limited organizations benefit from new technologies that promote novel partnerships among groups working toward the same goal of conservation.
Raising funds is critical for conserving biodiversity and hence so too is scrutinizing emerging financial mechanisms that might help achieve this goal. In this context, anecdotal evidence indicates crowdfunding is being used to support a variety of activities needed for biodiversity conservation, yet its magnitude and allocation remain largely unknown. We conducted a global analysis to help address this knowledge gap, based on empirical data from conservation‐focused projects extracted from crowdfunding platforms. For each project, we determined the funds raised, date, country of implementation, proponent characteristics, activity type, biodiversity realm, and target taxa. We identified 72 relevant platforms and 577 conservation‐focused projects that have raised US$4 790 634 since 2009. Whilst proponents were based in 38 countries, projects were delivered across 80 countries, indicating a potential mechanism of resource mobilization. Proponents were from non‐governmental organizations (35%), universities (30%), or were freelancers (26%). Most projects were for research (40%), persuasion (31%), and on‐ground actions (21%). Projects have focused primarily on species (57.7%) and terrestrial ecosystems (20.3%), and less on marine (8.8%) and freshwater ecosystems (3.6%). Projects have focused on 208 species, including a disproportionate number of threatened bird and mammal species. Crowdfunding for biodiversity conservation has now become a global phenomenon and presents signals for potential expansion, despite possible pitfalls. Opportunities arise from its spatial amplifying effect, steady increase over time, inclusion of Cinderella species, adoption by multiple actors, and funding of a range of activities beyond research. Our study paves the way for further research on key questions, such as campaign success rates, effectiveness, and drivers of adoption. Even though the capital input of crowdfunding so far has been modest compared to other conservation finance mechanisms, its contribution goes beyond funding research and providing capital. Embraced with due care, crowdfunding could potentially become an increasingly important financial mechanism for biodiversity conservation.
The live capture of primates is occurring throughout the tropics and can be a threat to their conservation. Primates are owned as pets for a variety of reasons. Studies of the motivations for primate ownership have been conducted in several countries where they are endemic, but no study has examined this issue in Madagascar. Madagascar is home to the highest number of threatened primate taxa in any one country, and an estimated 28,000 lemurs were kept in illegal captivity from 2010 to mid-2013. We aimed to expand knowledge about the motivations of lemur ownership in Madagascar. Data were collected via a web-based survey (n = 229 respondents) and from the websites and social media pages of 25 hotels. We found that many lemurs (45%) were seen on the premises of a business or in a private home (27%). Many lemurs were perceived to be kept as personal pets (37%) or for money-making or tourism purposes (20%). When lemurs were used for money-making, owners could receive indirect (72% of the time) and direct benefits (28%). Hotels showing photographs of captive lemurs on their websites and social media sites charged USD 25.69 more per night for a standard room than hotels that did not show such photographs. We found little evidence that captive lemurs are kept as a social status symbol, for captive breeding, or as a fallback food. These findings provide evidence that the motivations for the ownership of, usually illegal, captive lemurs is typically linked with money-making or with the desire to have a lemur as a pet. These data can help target new outreach programs.
Trust has long been considered an important factor that influences people’s relationship with news. However, the increase in the volume of information available online, together with the emergence of new tools and services that act as intermediaries and enable interactivity around the news, may have changed this relationship. Using Reuters Institute Digital News Report survey data (N = 21,524), this study explores the impact of individual trust in the news media on source preferences and online news participation behaviour, in particular sharing and commenting, across 11 countries. The results show that those with low levels of trust tend to prefer non-mainstream news sources like social media, blogs, and digital-born providers, and are more likely to engage in various forms of online news participation. These associations tend to be strongest in northern European countries, but are weaker elsewhere. Seeking alternative views and attempting to validate the credibility of news may be among the motivations behind these associations.