PETA's new formula: deception, manipulation, and fake animal abuse

PETA has hit a breathtaking new low.

The animal-rights group has produced a disturbing new video that depicts a cat suffering at the hands of its owner. It’s difficult to watch. It’s also completely fake. 

But it looks real; it is a skilled CGI work clearly meant to deceive viewers. Now, PETA is trying to enlist complicit media organizations to knowingly publish the fake video in an effort to make the lie go viral.

Press Kitchen, a PR agency, approached Mashable via email with the story late last week, completely unprompted, and we initially ignored the pitch. The agency pitched the idea in two additional emails.

Now, given the nature of the effort and the scourge of misinformation in 2017 — combined with the fact that the video is truly bizarre and gross — we're making this fake campaign public. We contacted PETA for comment on the video, but did not receive a response by publication time. 

Following the publication of this story, PETA released a statement on their website, reading in part: 

[We should note here that the issue isn't that "Mashable didn't like it" so much as that we here at Mashable don't take kindly to being approached for partnership on a shady, ethically ass-backwards marketing campaign. But also, yeah, sure: We're not fans of animal abuse videos, fake or otherwise.]

The statement continued:

In the clip, a man demands that his cat do tricks. The animal is computer-generated, though it's pretty convincing. He commands it to sit on its hind legs and jump between stools. When it fails, he slaps it across the face multiple times.The cat eventually runs away in fear.

The video is labeled "NEVER RELEASE: Cat Tricks."

The agency that created the video for PETA planned on anonymously releasing the footage early next week via YouTube and said it wants media outlets to cover the video without mentioning that it's fake. We are not embedding the video due legal concerns and because it's incredibly disturbing, but here's one screenshot of the cat's appearance to illustrate its realism:

Through this marketing effort, PETA is trying to convince the media to report and share a fake video as if it's real, in hopes of deceiving the public to create manufactured outrage. As animal lovers, this is offensive. As a media outlet with a responsibility to truthfulness, this is unethical. As people with basic moral values, WTF?

PETA's involvement was confirmed by a behind-the-scenes video that was also sent as part of the pitch, in which the organization's senior vice president of communications Lisa Lange talks about the video.

Here's a few lines of an email sent by the public relations firm to a Mashable reporter. 

After the video sparked outrage on the internet, PETA planned to release another video revealing the abuse clip was fake in an effort to draw attention to the issue of animal abuse in zoos, roadside attractions, circuses, film, and TV.

Regardless of the campaign's noble intent, spreading false information to raise awareness for anything — even the abuse of animals — is wrong and irresponsible. The campaign's big reveal relies on the audience following up on the story. As we all know, the internet and the news cycle move fast, and people who believe this clip is real may not necessarily see the behind-the-scene clip revealing the abuse video is fake. 

The stunt also plays into growing fears that advanced CGI could soon be used to produce fake videos that will be nearly indiscernible from reality. The cat in this video looks artificial to a trained eye, but it's convincing.

The problem here is that PETA has in the past proven its ability to effect change without stooping to complete fabrication. They've never needed to do this before, and they certainly don't need to now. Pressure from the organization is at least partially responsible for major changes at Sea World, as well as the closing of the Ringling Brothers Circus. This kind of campaign undercuts the group's legitimacy.

Of course, this isn't the first time PETA has used outrage as an opportunity to spread its brand and get attention. A previous ad from PETA compared livestock born into the meat industry with rape victims. 

Unrealistic and offensive comparisons are not unusual for PETA. Creating bogus videos, spreading misinformation, and inciting fake outrage is next level. 

Misinformation and propaganda have infected the internet, with various governments and organizations attempting to manipulate people through the spread of what's commonly referred to as "fake news." PETA's ploy is a bold attempt at hijacking the media with a fabricated video in hopes of spreading a political, if ultimately positive, message. The ends don't justify the means.

Update, June 7, 1:30 pm: This story has been updated to include an official statement issued by PETA via their website in response to Mashable's reporting.  

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