Cut the bullfighting

Green MEP Caroline Lucas explains why she thinks that, despite its ancient history, the cruelty of b

In the European Parliament this week, I chaired an open seminar on the future of bullfighting in the EU. Although its organisers originate from varying backgrounds – European animal welfare, veterinary science and economics – they all agree on one thing: bullfighting has to go.

Despite a considerable number of states having banned the practice of bullfighting by law – Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom among them – it still takes place in nine countries around the world. This is nine countries too many. Yet it is encouraging to find that even where bullfighting is legal, certain regions have begun to phase it out, such as the Canary Islands in Spain, and most of France.

Public appetite for this cruel blood sport has long been on the wane, but that doesn’t stop the Spanish government from heavily subsidising the declining industry. It has been estimated that over 550 million euros of taxpayer money is allocated to the pro-bullfighting industry per year, even though Spanish broadcaster RTVE stopped live coverage of bullfights in August 2007 and recent Gallup polls showed that the majority of Spaniards either disliked bullfighting or had no interest in it. Worse still, the EU subsidises it. According to recent reports, breeders of fighting bulls receive 220 Euros per bull per year from the EU, on top of national subsidies. Yet the EU is supposed to be a community of values – one of which is a high level of animal protection.

A cruel and unequal game

The pro bullfighting lobby puts forward a number of claims for the preservation of the ‘sport’, which need be addressed. First though, it is worth considering the reality of a typical Spanish-style bullfight. The ‘show’ begins when the bull enters the arena and is provoked into charging several times, before being approached by picadores, men on blindfolded horses, who drive lances into its back and neck muscles. The subsequent loss of blood impairs the bull's ability to lift its head, and when the banderilleros arrive on foot, the bull can expect further pain from the banderillas, spiked sticks in bright colours, being stabbed into its back.

Now weak and disorientated, the bull is encouraged by the banderilleros to run in dizzying circles before finally, the matador appears and, after a few forced charges, tries to kill the bull with his sword. If he misses, he stabs the submissive animal on the back of the neck until it is paralysed. The idea is to cut the animal’s spinal cord, but if the matador botches the job, the bull may be fully conscious while its ears or tail are removed as trophies. On many occasions, the bull remains alive until it is dragged out of the arena to be slaughtered

Thousands of bulls are maimed and killed in such a way every year. Spain puts the official number of bulls killed in official bullfights in permanent bullrings in 2006 at 11,458, but when you take into account the bullfights in mobile bullrings and the bulls killed during training and other bullfighting events, the figure is more likely to reach least 40,000 in Europe as a whole, and about 250,000 internationally.

Why do people defend it?

A continuation of the ‘sport’ has been justified on the grounds of national cultural heritage, some on ecological grounds, while others believe that it plays an important part in a country’s economy. Such claims have been effectively refuted by animal welfare organisations, as well as by politicians and economists from across the political spectrum. Even Queen Sofia of Spain has expressed her dislike for the ‘tradition’.

Some have defended bullfighting as a national tradition, seeking to preserve it as a piece of cultural heritage without which their country’s identity would suffer. Nevertheless, many others have opposed it, recognising bullfighting for what is really is – a cruel blood sport causing unnecessary suffering to the animal.

Even if you believe that bullfighting is a tradition or culture, the fact that it dates back to prehistoric times and that artists have revered it can never really justify serious cruelty to animals. Cruelty is cruelty no matter where in the world it happens. Human societies and cultures have changed over many thousands of years, as has what traditions are deemed acceptable. Our understanding of animals has improved a great deal in recent times. There is no place in the 21st century for a ‘sport’ which relies on animal cruelty for ‘entertainment’.

The ecological argument is also tenuous. The bullfighting industry points out that many fighting bulls are bred in semi-preserved areas of land called dehesas, home to several protected species and cared for as areas of outstanding natural beauty. The industry claims that these areas will disappear if bullfighting is abolished, because their business prevents the dehesas being developed for other purposes.

But the breeding of fighting bulls is not the sole purpose and function of this land, plus local authorities have never identified the bulls’ removal as a threat to populations of protected species. The owners of the dehesas can choose to use their land in a variety of ways regardless of whether or not they keep bulls, and those that do keep bulls should be compensated for loss of activity. It is the job of local authorities to ensure that such land and wildlife is protected, and the necessary laws are already in place. Furthermore, the Foro Encinal, an alliance of twenty organisations whose role is to protect the dehesas has never identified the breeding of fighting bulls as beneficial to the land’s ecological balance.

Economic concerns focus on bullfighting as a vital part of the tourist industry in Spain; as a generator of money and as an employer of people. Yet, tourists will visit Spain regardless of whether or not bullfighting exists, and as people become more ethically aware on their travels, tourist attendance at the shows looks set to fall even further. Indeed, a ComRes poll commissioned in April 2007 found that 89% of the British public would not visit a bullfight when on a holiday.

Like most industries, the profits from bullfighting end up in the hands of a very small number of people in a bullfighting elite. Even more importantly, the subsidies that prop up this declining industry take money away from serious social problems such as access to public health, education, infrastructures, the elderly, public safety, social housing and environmental policies.

An unpopular and unacceptable ‘entertainment’

In Spain, the country perhaps most associated with the bullfighting tradition, a 2006 Gallup poll showed that 72.10 per cent of Spaniards were not interested at all in bullfighting and just 7.40 per cent were very interested; in Catalonia more than 80 per cent showed no interest at all.

Such statistics show clearly that the opposition to bullfighting is growing throughout Europe, and that it is no longer deemed acceptable for the EU or for national governments to subsidise an activity which relies on animal abuse to make money. It seems undemocratic at best to use cash from the public coffers to prop up an unpopular blood sport, at the expense of crucial public services.

It is our responsibility to ensure that adequate protection is provided for animals in our care to prevent unnecessary suffering. I call on the European Parliament to reconsider the financial assistance given to the breeders of fighting bulls, so that the efforts to ban the ‘sport’ altogether can gather pace. The longer that bull fighting persists, the longer our standards of animal welfare will fall short of the mark.

For more information on anti-bullfighting campaigns, visit the website for the Spanish organisation Save Our Shame (SOS) or see the League Against Cruel Sports’ ‘Balls to Bullfighting’ campaign to sign a worldwide pledge to boycott the ‘sport’.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.