This week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered a custom anti-hunting frame for Facebook profile photos. “Shoot Selfies, Not Animals,” it read, with a majestic buck silhouette and a PETA logo. A friend of mine immediately used it to frame a profile photo of her holding two giant ducks she’d shot.
She was not the only one to delight in trolling the animal rights organization, as hunter after hunter added snapshots of their conquests framed by an anti-hunting message. Because in America, you don’t have to choose between shooting selfies and animals.
But watching this widespread publicity campaign go awry, it occurred to me I was watching one of the original trolls get trolled…by the general public. My, what a role reversal.
Before “trolling” was a phenomenon with a well-known name, PETA had perfected it. Its near-constant barrage of publicity stunts made it more or less a household name, as non-profit organizations go. But it wasn’t recognized for its quick and effective response, like the American Red Cross, or its wide reach, like United Way. Instead, it was known for its excesses, and those excesses earned a lot of ink while its day-to-day operations got almost none (even when they got pretty dark and hypocritical).
PETA’s trademark was staging stunts that would outrage people with their ridiculousness, such as comparing modern-day meat production to slavery. Or, to stage a stunt in which PETA was outraged by something ridiculous, such as the Easter Bunny or the use of a real English bulldog as UGA’s mascot.
Both of these types of stunts were ready-made for a cable news segment, and I commented on plenty of them. Hosts could be offended by PETA’s ridiculous stunt or offended PETA was offended by a ridiculous thing, depending on the week. Two pundits could good-naturedly and safely comment on PETA being over-the-top while assuring the audience, of course, we all agree on protecting animals, “but come ON.”
They were a sort of cultural foil, a bit too earnest and off-the-rails in their passionate advocacy for their cause, and easily mockable by 90 percent of the news-consuming audience. This 2009 clip of Megyn Kelly going after PETA over a racy vegetarianism campaign, and the liberal Young Turks going after Megyn Kelly going after PETA, while everyone agreeing PETA is engaged in shenanigans, is a great example of the cycle.
But the stunts only worked because PETA’s stunts were easily recognizable as outrageous.
What about now? Let’s look a top-10 list of PETA’s most outrageous stunts from Mediaite, written in 2012. A display of nearly nude ladies painted red to signify blood outside McDonald’s to call out its “McCruelty” to chickens. Yawn. Playboy models in lettuce bikinis serving veggie dogs on National Veggie Dog Day. Meh. Pam Anderson marked with the names of cuts of meat to remind us “all animals have the same parts.” Oh, this is quaint. Here’s another list from 2009, with stunts dubbed “craziest.”
Those wouldn’t move a needle in 2017. Only PETA’s most disgusting theatrics would—comparing chicken farms to concentration camps? Probably. Attacking an actual shark victim with a “Payback is Hell” campaign? Perhaps.
As for PETA in the role of the easily offended snowflake? It lost that battle to social justice warriors long ago. PETA doesn’t even scratch the surface of the problematic in this country. Offended by the Easter Bunny, fishing (PETA called them seakittens), and school mascots? Amateur hour.
Donald Trump is president and Berkeley is burning. You can’t win, PETA. We are all trolls now.
So, what happened? Did watching the outrage cycle and symbiotic relationship of PETA, pundits, and news teach us all the publicity benefits of being as troll-y as possible? Did PETA’s trolling inure us to shock value, causing them to up the amount to produce the same result, and now here we are taking gargantuan doses and feeling nothing? Or, are we all to blame because news consumers responded to PETA in such predictable ways for all those years, getting our dopamine hits out of scoffing at PETA and the other side while pumping up everyone’s publicity?
Did PETA make us more troll-y or did PETA’s game work so well because we were always trolls? What I do know is we’ve come a long way on the PETA outrage gauge, and that is not a good thing for society.
This is probably a chicken-and-egg situation we’ll never fully resolve. And that expression is probably animal cruelty, right, PETA?