World

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

More than four million people have shared pictures of their pets to their Instagram stories as part of a campaign that claims to "plant one tree for every pet picture." So who's behind the post and is anyone planting millions of trees? The answer is complicated. 

Group behind campaign promising to plant trees says it removed the post — but millions still shared it

The brand Plant A Tree recently posted an explanation on its Instagram page after people began questioning its online campaign to plant a tree for every pet photo shared. An expert in misinformation says online initiatives like this one can impact how people view legitimate campaigns. (plantatreeco/Instagram)

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.

The Add Yours sticker feature went live on Nov. 1. The next day, an Instagram page belonging to an organization called Plant A Tree Co. created a sticker and began using it for a campaign promising to plant a tree for every pet photo shared.

The campaign quickly blew up and millions of people, including celebrities like actresses Sarah Hyland and Lili Reinhart, used the sticker and shared pet photos.

A composite image of screen shots from Instagram stories show photos shared by actors 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, Plant A Tree Co. originally claimed to have "planted over 6,500 trees to date" and had a stated goal of planting one million trees by the end of 2021.

That has changed since this story was first published on Nov. 9.

Plant a Tree Co.'s completely revamped website now says the group "has planted 6,500 trees to date, and we are just getting started." The website now states that the goal is to "plant 1 billion trees by 2030."

The website originally said that in order to plant trees, they were selling necklaces and that the sale of one necklace would fund the planting of one tree. By Nov. 11, all mention of the necklaces had been removed.

Plant A Tree Co. responds

On Nov. 9, Plant A Tree Co. added a post to its 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 Plant A Tree said were attempts to end the campaign, the post continued to spread through the stories of millions of Instagram users. 

In a statement provided to CBC News by Plant A Tree Co. on Nov. 11, representative Zack Saadioui blamed the continued spread of the sticker on Instagram, suggesting there could be a bug with the Add Yours sticker feature. 

The statement said the group deleted the post and "thought nothing of it but then a week later out of nowhere millions of people ended up reposting a deleted post that seemingly had no originator because Instagram removed the creator section that shows the account that posted it."

In the statement, Saadioui said he thought it would be a great idea to partner with Instagram "to actually plant the four million trees for every person that posted their pet, since it was the inability to completely delete their new feature that caused it to go so viral."

A spokesperson for Meta, Instagram's parent company, told CBC News the Plant A Tree 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. Plant A Tree addressed this in both its Instagram post and its later statement to CBC.

Instead of planting the trees itself, Plant A Tree said it was raising money for Trees for the Future, a registered nonprofit that helps communities around the world plant trees.

As of Tuesday evening, there was no fundraiser available on Plant A Tree Co.'s site. By Thursday Nov. 11, the revamped website listed an Instagram fundraiser it said would benefit Trees for the Future.

"We don't touch any of the money, it is completely handled by Instagram through the Instagram fundraiser," said Saadioui's statement to CBC News. 

As of Nov. 12, the fundraiser appears to have raised $43,511. 

Those who posted pet pictures to Instagram hoping they would result in more trees being planted turned out to have been participating in a viral social media campaign that had nothing to do with actually planting trees. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

"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 in a statement Tuesday. 

She said Trees for the Future does have the capacity to plant millions of trees and that "this year alone, farmers planted more than 35 million trees across our projects."

On Friday, Nov. 12, after the new fundraiser was created, Cobb again said Trees for the Future is not affiliated with Plant A Tree Co., but noted that they do regularly receive donations from fundraisers hosted on Instagram and Facebook.

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 Plant A Tree's social media footprint, he noticed spikes in followers that correlate with this campaign and others like it that Plant A Tree has launched, which he said shows 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. 

Participating in social media campaigns that claim to be for a good cause but demand little more from users than liking or sharing a post has been labelled as 'clicktivism' by some. (Manan/Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brock Wilson

Journalist

Brock Wilson is an associate producer with the social team at CBC News based in Toronto. He can often be found creating content for the CBC News Snapchat Discover page and writing stories for the web. You can reach him at brock.wilson@cbc.ca.

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