If you've been scrolling through Instagram stories over the past week, you may have noticed pet photos. A lot of pet photos.
They took the form of a sticker, a new Instagram feature that lets users link their photos to broader trends. This sticker promised to plant a tree for every photo of a pet posted to Instagram stories with this particular sticker attached.
The sticker looked like this:
The post went massively viral. For days, starting Nov. 2, Instagram stories were clogged with photos of people's pets.
Over 4 million photos of pets were shared on Instagram, which caused people to ask: Who is going to be planting over 4 million trees, and how the hell are they going to go about it?
Ultimately an Instagram account named Plant A Tree Co., which has a million followers, took responsibility for the campaign.
In an Instagram post, the Plant A Tree Co. Instagram account said it initially posted the story but deleted it once things got out of control, recognizing it would be incredibly difficult to actually plant the amount of trees required. According to the post, it was initially supposed to be a fun way to raise awareness of environmental issues.
"We immediately realized the post would grow too big and that we didn't have the resources to plant that many trees," read the post, "so we deleted it 10 minutes later. Even though we deleted it, the stories continued to spread out of our control."
After the post was deleted, said Plant A Tree Co., its credit was removed from the sticker, but people were able to continue sharing regardless.
The initial idea, said the post, was to raise money for Trees For The Future, an agricultural project with a mission to "end hunger and poverty by training farmers to regenerate their land" through the planting of trees.
It attached a fundraiser to the post which has, at time of writing, raised over $3,500 (around £2,583, AU$4,752).
Trees For The Future didn't immediately respond to a request for comment but posted a statement on its own Instagram stories, distancing itself from the project and encouraging people to donate directly to the Trees For The Future project instead.
"We must clarify that Trees for the Future has the capacity to plant millions of trees," said Lindsay Cobb, marketing and communications manager at Trees For The Future. "This year alone, farmers planted more than 35 million trees across our projects."
A number of online posts claim that Plant A Tree Co. has a history of misleading Instagram users.
Who's behind Plant a Tree Co.?
Perhaps the most detailed account is this extended Instagram story by freelance journalist Patrick Marlborough. In his investigation, Marlborough identified the founder of Plant a Tree Co. as Zack Saadioui, a 23-year-old computer science major from Florida. Marlborough alleges Saadioui used campaigns like this in past to sell necklaces at a huge markup.
Many Instagram accounts say this is part of a long-running scam, claiming Plant a Tree Co. previously exploited the Australian bushfires in 2019 via a viral post, creating a trend around donation promises that were impossible to meet -- much like this new "plant a tree for every pet" trend.
Saadioui says he's being misunderstood.
"There have been a lot of accusations about Plant A Tree Co.," he said in a statement to CNET, "and I understand where they're coming from, as we have made unintentional mistakes in the past.
"It all stemmed from our first viral post that we never anticipated would grow so big in 2019, when I was 21 years old and a junior in college. We addressed it, stopped the post and stated that it would be impossible to plant. Unfortunately, this set a negative tone for the brand which I truly intended to be for a great cause."
He claims, since the Australian bushfire viral post, he's attempted to be as transparent as possible.
"We never touch any of the funds raised and it goes directly to the Instagram approved charity," he said. "This has been very effective due to the viral nature of these fundraisers, and through our platform we have managed to raise over $500k total for several charities."
Saadioui showed us a list of donations he's made in the past, including a $3,173 donation to the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donation Fund.
Deleted but still viral
Saadioui is well aware he won't be able to plant the 4 million plus trees promised by his viral post, but he wants to partner with Instagram. According to Saadioui, it was a bug on Instagram that enabled the post to go viral after he deleted it, so he wants to work with Instagram to fulfill the goal of planting all those trees.
Instagram didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
"We... think that it would be a great idea to partner up with Instagram to actually plant the 4 million trees," Saadioui said, "since it was the inability to completely delete their new feature that caused it to go so viral.
"With so many people who participated, including Demi Lovato and other big celebrities, we think it would be a great opportunity for Instagram to use this buzz for a fun campaign to plant 4 million trees."