What drives seemingly ordinary, well-adjusted members of our society to partake in sadistic behavior?
That’s the common question I found myself wondering all over again when I discovered “MonkeyHateGate“. Deep in the bowels of YouTube is a community dedicated to a shared hatred of… baby monkeys.
Who are these people, and why do they hate baby monkeys? Seriously, they’re adorable. Right? Please don’t tell me you hate baby monkeys too. Uh oh. I hope we’re not going to have a problem here.
Yeah, at first glance, this whole thing sounded utterly laughable to me. I immediately concluded it must have been another dumb YouTube comment meme… I’m saying all this so that you don’t let your guard down. This article gets grim fast.
As you may have guessed from the warning, ‘baby monkey haters’ do more than just comment their disdain for baby monkeys. Many of them cultivate playlists of monkey abuse, while others write elaborate violent fantasies to share in the comments section.
All of this takes place on YouTube, a website so notorious for its poor moderation that its response to a developing child abuse problem was to disable the comments on the offending videos. Likewise, their response to this known issue has been to remove individual videos and sweep it under the rug. They know fully well their website is being used as a platform for this content, and they have done very little to actually address that.
This community has been known for over half a decade, though it’s not clear how they propagate themselves and gain more members. There’s empty speculation of closed Discord servers, but seeing as Discord is a relatively recent development and YouTube removed DMs years ago, I’m inclined to believe the bulk of their communication is through comments on the same playlists that they create.
Most of these people are English speakers who do not make their own content. The bulk of their playlists are videos from Cambodia, where illegal monkey trade is a serious problem. Cameramen overfeed the monkeys and disrupt their social structure, leading to exaggerated behaviors; this pleases the commenters, who blame the monkeys for their own predicament.
Unlike many other violent groups on social media, many baby monkey haters are upfront, because they know they have nothing to hide. They have real names attached to their profiles, sometimes even their own faces, and you can even tie some of them to surprisingly mundane public Facebook accounts.
If that surprises you, that’s okay, because it shocked me too. It took honest introspection to realize why this bothers me so much: I truly want to believe that I would be able to recognize a strange person if I met them. I have a honed ‘weirdo radar’ that has very rarely failed me, and I’ve trained it with thousands of dog-whistles. I can usually tell within an hour of interacting with someone if they are trying to take advantage of me in some way… and yet something like this has left me completely stumped.
I think something deep down in me is fundamentally unnerved that these people aren’t as fixated and obviously unstable as, say, Flat Earthers. Maybe that’s what I want – for everything to be so easy and clear-cut. But it’s not, because the world rarely is. Even I know that, because if it was so simple I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life learning obscure codewords in the first place.
But the question this topic always comes back to is the same one that’s probably on your mind as well: why? Why baby monkeys of all things? Well, there’s quite a few theories kicking around.
First up is the uncanny valley, a hypothesized metric for why nearly-human objects creep us out. There’s a vast amount of theories for why the valley exists, but most of them have the common theme of a biological fear of contagious disease. A similar fear is believed to motivate trypophobia, incidentally.
I take evolutionary psychology with a wheelbarrow of salt, but in this case, cultural expectations really do form the basis of how people act on their phobias. Monkeys and apes have been historically associated with the transmission of horrific diseases, including HIV, herpes B, and rabies. Phobias in themselves do not cause violent behavior, but it is a hard truth that many phobias motivate anger and abuse in people who already deal with their problems inappropriately.
Interestingly, monkeys have been observed to exhibit a sliding scale of avoidant behavior when shown different qualities computer-generated simians, meaning that they might experience the same revulsion we do. This could be a huge breakthrough into understanding what motivates these more arbitrary forms of bigotry… or it could be a completely different response. I’m not comfortable drawing a conclusion on that, as anthropomorphism is a very real problem when analyzing animal behavior.
A related theory is that maybe this is actually some sort of code for Black people, or children, or Black children. This one I think is a bit too convoluted for Occam’s razor. Yes, for sure, ‘monkey’ is an inarguable slur and I do believe these people are aware of that. But racists know they can post whatever they want, wherever they want; if they want to speak candidly, they have plenty of other websites to do so, rather than hoping fellow racists are also watching monkey torture videos.
There’s still some merit there. I don’t think it’s a code, but people who enjoy animal torture videos tend to not stop there, and this could be just one of many things they’re doing at any given moment. One of the most well-known and prolific baby monkey haters is a proud enthusiast of ‘hurtcore’, a genre of extreme pornography that is banned from most forums dedicated to extreme pornography.
Another theory that keeps getting kicked around is that this is a form of “cute aggression”, which is the reaction we get when we see something cute and we grit our teeth and want to pinch its cheeks. My problem with this theory is that I feel like this is a misunderstanding of cute aggression, which is not a desire to hurt an animal – it’s a term to analyze why a lot of our “aww, adorable!” responses are superficially angry-looking. Dimorphous expression is normal, and you’ve experienced it if you’ve ever cried happily or laughed nervously; it’s just a form of crossed wires we get when we’re emotionally overstimulated.
Terminology aside, I get the real core concern, which is that there are people who think it’s funny to hurt cute things. From Pokemon torture games on Newgrounds, to ‘fluffy ponies’ in the My Little Pony fandom, to virtual pet abuse – for every cheek-pinchingly adorable thing that exists, there’s at least one person writing their own graphic story of how they want that thing to suffer.
But then, we come back to the same damn question: why monkeys? Why not, I don’t know… kittens, the internet’s beloved pop stars?
That’s a really hard question. Kitten torture rings already exist in the form of “crush videos”, and it’s a cold reality that they’re financially successful. But they’re taken more seriously, spoken of with all of the contempt they deserve, and punished with much more speed. The torture of common pet animals hits such a raw nerve for us, because these are animals we see and interact with every day. We know cats.
Meanwhile, monkeys… are still being abused. Farms in Thailand cage and chain the monkeys they use to pick coconuts; monkeys are stolen and bred for the pet trade, which exists vibrantly on YouTube and Instagram; even the Humane Society’s chimp rescue is kept in horrific condition.
To make matters worse, poachers have become emboldened by the coronavirus pandemic: without consistent patrols, monkeys are in greater danger than ever before. I can easily imagine that by 2021 we will have a YouTube pet primate crisis, to say nothing of the ones that will just be openly killed.
Removing these videos from YouTube is a start and will hopefully cut off one of the wildlife trade’s sources of revenue, but it won’t be enough if that’s all we do. These things are still going to be happening – this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is our opportunity to analyze this very real phenomenon, to confront the atrocities we may have overlooked, and to take actual action.
You see, I believe the most likely answer is that all of the theories I’ve listed are true. Not as a face-value PizzaGate conspiracy, but in more complicated and painful ways. All of these things are true on individual levels because there is no unified group. These are individual people; some of whom are scared of things that they don’t understand, which makes them lash out in hopes of taking control of the situation; some of whom are sadists seeking an easy target.
Humans are crushingly human-centric, and our belief that we are special in some way has completely separated us from critical empathy skills required to understand fellow animals. These are all screwed up people who are using YouTube as an outlet, and that inspires other screwed up people to copy them. It is, effectively, a meme of cruelty that has been going on for decades.
But what can we actually do about this? An unfortunate hurdle in this is that taking down individual videos can be counterproductive: YouTube doesn’t actually contact authorities in any meaningful way, so local investigators are left stranded if the video creator decides to go into hiding. This worst-case scenario has already happened with the case of the baby macaques Hehe and Haha, whose owner went dark after internet vigilantes left her angry messages. A vast majority of the actual abuse is taking place in countries most of us have no say in, and any direct action we could take would border on crusaderism.
If you want to help from home, a good start is by reading about the problems with Project Chimps, the Humane Society’s sanctuary for former research chimpanzees. Likewise, the United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership is doing ground-floor work with stopping illegal trade. But if this subject really speaks to you, now’s as good of a time as any to consider studying primate conservation. On top of the loss of tourism revenue, it’s a very safe assumption that great apes are susceptible to COVID-19. Things are only going to get worse from here.