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It's time to call out Instagram charity scams

Unreliable Instagram charities like Plant A Tree Co. set a dangerous precedent for lack of action in social media activism. – Photo by Trees for the Future / Twitter

It’s a scenario that’s becoming more and more familiar to Instagram users: You open the application and click on your friend’s story to see a post reading something like “Repost to plant a tree!” or “Share this to your story to donate!”

It’s easy to do, and you’d be making a positive impact, so why not add the post to your story, too? You share it, someone else sees it, the cycle continues and the post goes viral. But are the accounts behind these seemingly charitable Instagram posts really following through with the actions that they claim they’ll take?

One of the most recent examples of Instagram activism is an Instagram story trend that went viral in early November — an interactive sticker told users its creators would plant one tree for every pet picture posted.

It sounded fun and simple enough, and about four million people took part, adding pictures of dogs, cats and a multitude of other pets. As the post grew in popularity, people rightly began to wonder who exactly was behind it, and who was actually promising to plant all of these trees.

The Instagram story trend was started by Plant A Tree Co., an account that claimed to be raising money for different nature and animal-related charities. The organization eventually acknowledged that they had received a much greater amount of responses than they’d anticipated, so they would not realistically be able to plant the promised amount of trees.

Instead, they said, they would hold a fundraiser for Trees for the Future — an organization that promotes sustainable farming and forestry. While this sounds great on paper, Plant A Tree Co. has a history of making seemingly empty or unfulfilled promises, so it still might not be the best place to donate money.

Even though the company claims to have donated $500,000 to different causes and planted 6,500 trees, there’s no real proof that they have done so, and their website doesn't provide much detail about the organization or its actions.

Plant A Tree Co. is not the first organization to create these vague, simple Instagram posts that appear to be doing good, but end up being scams. In the past, other accounts have gone viral for using similar methods to try and get people to engage with their content.

For example, in 2019, multiple Instagram accounts sprung up related to the political crisis in Sudan, according to The Atlantic. The most popular of these accounts, Sudan Meal Project, made a post promising to send a meal to a Sudanese child for every time someone reposted it on their story.

Despite their claims, it turned out that it was nearly impossible to send meals to Sudan at the time — and the owner of the account admitted that their goal was to gain exposure, not to provide concrete help to Sudanese children. People who became aware of the crisis in Sudan and wanted to do something to help were being tricked into giving likes and follows to accounts that made empty promises instead of contributing to the cause.

Accounts and posts like these can stop people from taking real, meaningful action for issues they care about. These scams typically target causes with mass appeal and current media focus, like environmental issues or current major political and social crises.

For those who want to help, it’s much easier to fall into resharing a post to your Instagram story than to do research to find reliable organizations to support. But by taking the easy way out, you run the risk of spreading misinformation that won’t help anyone. If you do decide to donate money to one of these accounts, it might not even be going to the cause you care about.

As social media becomes a more popular tool for activism, it becomes easier for people or groups to use these methods to dishonestly increase engagement with their pages and collect donations from well-meaning people.

Social media encourages a culture of reading things quickly without thinking too much about them. But when it comes to spreading information or donating money, it’s worth taking the extra time to make sure you’re supporting a legitimate cause or organization.

There are some do's and don'ts that can help you determine what organizations are legitimate, and which ones are trying to capitalize off crisis.

You should research the organizations you’re planning on donating to or sharing posts from and donate directly to those organizations if you have the means to do so. You should also look into local organizations you can donate to or work with to help similar causes to the ones you are seeing on Instagram in your community.

You shouldn't donate to any organizations you haven't researched, or share any information before fact-checking it to make sure it's reliable. You also shouldn't engage with organizations that have a history of scamming people, or not following through with the action they promise.

While it can be hard to tell which organizations are legitimate from a single Instagram post or account, taking these steps and doing your research can help ensure that when you decide to support a cause, you are doing so in a real and meaningful way.


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