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Nobody is planting a tree if you share a pet picture on Instagram. Here’s why


You may have noticed people posting pictures of their dogs or cats on their Instagram stories as part of a recent campaign promising to plant trees for every picture posted. You may have even posted one yourself. 

More than four million people have added pictures of their pets to their Instagram stories as part of a social media campaign that used a new Add Yours sticker feature released by Instagram last week. The sticker created by the Instagram account behind the campaign claims “We’ll plant 1 tree for every pet picture.”

But who is the “we” behind the post and is anyone planting millions of trees? The answer is complicated. 

Who’s behind the trend? 

Instagram debuted a new feature earlier this month, a sticker it said could be used to create public threads in Instagram Stories, another feature that allows users to share content.

Since the Add Yours sticker feature went live last Monday, an Instagram page belonging to an organization called Plantatreeco created a sticker and began using it for a campaign that promised to plant a tree for every pet photo users shared.

The campaign quickly blew up and millions of people, including celebrities like actresses Sarah Hyland and Lili Reinhart, got in on the trend, using the sticker and sharing photos of their pets.

A composite image of screenshots from Instagram stories show photos shared by actresses Sarah Hyland and Lili Reinhart using a sticker from a campaign that claimed it would plant one tree for every pet photo shared. (sarahhyland/lilireinhart/Instagram )

But over the weekend, suspicion began to mount. Users wondered who was behind the campaign and if they would actually plant millions of trees.   

On its website, Plantatreeco claims to have “planted over 6,500 trees to date” and has a stated goal of planting one million trees by the end of 2021. The website says that in order to plant trees, they are selling necklaces and that the sale of one necklace funds the planting of one tree.

On Tuesday, Plantatreeco, added a post to their Instagram brand page titled “Who’s behind the anonymous tree planting post?” with an image showing that the sticker had been used more than four million times.

The post said the sticker from the Add Yours feature was a “fun tree planting campaign” but that they removed the post very quickly.  

“We immediately realized the post would grow too big and that we didn’t have the resources to plant that many trees, so we deleted it 10 minutes later,” the post said. 

Despite what Plantatreeco said were attempts to end the campaign, the post continued to spread through the stories of millions of Instagram users. 

Plantatreeco said in their post that Instagram “stripped” their credit from the post, thus hiding where it originated.

A spokesperson for Meta, Instagram’s parent company, told CBC News the Plantatreeco sticker was disabled to limit misunderstanding around who authored the original post. Meta is the company formerly known as Facebook after a recent rebranding. 

As part of the Add Yours sticker campaign, when a user clicks a sticker on Instagram, it should show the original author. However, if the original author removes the sticker or turns their account private, the sticker is left without an author.

Meta says they’re working on ways to make authorship clearer and minimize confusion moving forward.

But what about the trees? 

After users began questioning the legitimacy of the campaign, some wondered if any trees would be planted at all. Planatreeco addressed this in their Tuesday response as well. 

Instead of planting the trees themselves, Plantatreeco said that they are raising money for Trees for the Future, a group that helps communities around the world plant trees.

However, there is no fundraiser for Trees for the Future listed on Plantatreeco’s website. Trees for the Future, which is a registered nonprofit, told CBC News they are not affiliated with the brand.

“When the fundraiser came to our attention, we immediately reached out to the group asking them to clarify the nature of the fundraiser and we reported the post to Instagram,” said Lindsay Cobb, a Trees for the Future spokesperson.

She said in her response that Trees for the Future does have the capacity to plant millions of trees. 

“This year alone, farmers planted more than 35 million trees across our projects,” the statement said. “We’ve planted more than 225 million trees to date, positively impacting more than 300,000 people.”

The rise of ‘clicktivism’ 

Ahmed Al-Rawi, who focuses on disinformation as an assistant professor at the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said there’s a clear intent behind these viral social media campaigns.

He said that in researching Plantatreeco’s social media footprint, he noticed spikes in followers that correlate with this campaign and others like it that Plantatreeco has launched, which he said shows that they intend to grow their audience.     

“This shows they’re very desperate to get attention on social media … and it seems to be working.” 

Al-Rawi said with its recent Instagram response to the controversy, the group is “trying to avoid any legal repercussions” by saying the campaign was only for fun.  

He attributes campaigns like this to people participating in what he calls “clicktivism.”

“It’s exhibiting the lowest amount of engagement with a good cause,” he said, noting how easy it is to share a picture of a pet and feel like you’ve contributed.  

While this particular trend didn’t appear to have any serious repercussions, Al-Rawi says it can still be harmful because it impacts how people view online campaigns, including legitimate ones that are meant to serve the public.  

“People’s trust in these campaigns might be lowered.”

How to avoid sharing misinformation

Al-Rawi says there are a number of things the average social media user can do to avoid spreading misinformation or taking part in suspicious online campaigns. 

First of all, he said, if something seems too good to be true, it likely is. It’s also important to look into who benefits from the campaign — is it the public? Or a small group looking for promotion? 

Finally, Al-Rawi says it’s important to do your research and only share information from credible sources.

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