Digital Age Outrage: Cecil the Lion and Online Awareness

In 2015, online public shaming is nothing new.

But even in this day and age, the collective campaign of keyboard warfare that the internet community has waged against American dentist Dr Walter Palmer has, objectively, been something to behold.

For the small number of readers who are unaware, Dr Palmer is alleged to have shot and killed a lion named Cecil on an illegal hunting trip in Zimbabwe. Images of the Pennsylvania man displaying the animal’s body as a hunting trophy then found their way onto social media and everything exploded.

Cue the furious eruption of wildlife charities, activists and everyday internet users alike, vilifying Palmer and anointing Cecil as the figurehead of numerous anti-hunting campaigns, including one which saw his picture projected onto the Empire State Building. Before long, the reaction to the reaction reared its head, with naysayers turning on ‘fad’ animal rights activists who only vaguely remember what ALS was.

We can debate the morality of sentiments like “string up the dentist” or “why do you care?” until the cows come home, but the rest of the internet seems to be doing a pretty good job of that without me.

What I will say is that the fluidity of awareness and information-sharing in digital and broadcast media has been a fundamental part of the industry since time immemorial, and one which it pays to understand and work within.

The fact is that, like it or not, digital networks and devices have built us a bottomless well of information and content, which we can only draw from one bucket at a time. In short, an expectation of public awareness about illegal African big game hunting is as unrealistic now as it ever was, not because the 10 o’clock news aren’t covering it, but because competition for attention is greater than ever.

A 2012 study estimated that there were 634 million registered websites worldwide, while the number of internet search queries run annually had reached an incredible 1.2 trillion.

Bearing in mind that the rise in social now also means that around 6,000 tweets are sent out every second, the proliferation of information can render it almost impossible for a concerted awareness campaign to break through.

As it is our stock in trade, take it from us that often the catalyst for a successful awareness campaign is simply a headline-grabbing peg, one which shines a spotlight onto an issue that has been put on the backburner somewhere behind Jeremy Corbyn and Hulk Hogan.

Successful campaigns have figureheads, willing or otherwise, as they give the public a focus for their ire/adulation/disgust, and this is a story with two clearly-defined characters (the fact that Cecil had an endearingly aristocratic name humanises him even further). It stands to reason that a movement gains momentum much easier and faster if they can offer a simple online user experience: “This is awful, this man is to blame, please share”.

It’s a brutal example, but often a successful campaign is a simple campaign.

And so Dr Walter Palmer finds himself in this position. He is not the first man to kill a lion, and he certainly won’t be the last. Whatever you think of him and his actions, it’s hard to argue that his reputation hasn’t snowballed, in part at least, because of the power of internet connectivity and the public appetite for an identifiable target.

If it does emerge that Dr Palmer did wilfully kill Cecil illegally, then he will be punished by the relevant authorities. But it remains to be seen whether the collaborative depiction of him as the poster boy for illegal hunting will have a bearing on how he and his case is viewed.

If the Ice Bucket Challenge taught us anything, it’s that seemingly ubiquitous awareness campaigns can disappear as quickly as they erupt. It’s entirely possible that the next American tourist to be caught on an illegal hunting trip will get about as much coverage as your ex-housemate would if he posted an ALS video tomorrow morning.

But what the shooting of Cecil has done is tap into a complex, important issue and made it anecdotal, self-contained and easy to understand. That’s why it has grabbed the public attention and shoved Palmer firmly into the firing line.

In many ways, he was just in the wrong place at the right time.

By Jamie Stanley


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