When the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (which shortens to the fitting initialism CPR) recently plastered an impossible-to-ignore image of a dead horse on billboards around Australia, demands for the ad’s removal were swift. The racing industry and the public – used to having out-of-sight-out-of-mind ‘privacy’ tents erected around injured racehorses – found the Is The Party Really Worth It? campaign confronting.

The image and the tagline were prescient. Two horses died after running the 2014 Melbourne Cup: one (race favourite Admire Rakti) after collapsing with likely heart failure; the other (Araldo) euthanised due to breaking its leg after being startled post-race by a flapping flag. News of their deaths, plus a heady mix of outrage, shock and sorrow, rippled across social media.

Animal activists were unsurprised by the deaths. One horse dies every 2.9 days in Australia. Two more horses died after other races in subsequent days of the 2014 Spring Racing Carnival. There’s something ethically unsettling about sports that use animals. Probably because consent is conspicuously absent and cruelty is conspicuously present – whipping, withholding food and other dubious tactics are used to coerce animals to perform.

But social media is making it harder for organisations to hide cruelty and for the public to remain blinkered to animals’ suffering. It’s one thing for us to willingly, knowingly endanger ourselves (or enjoy watching others do so) on obstacle courses like those featured on Wipeout, but it’s another to force animals to do so.

The Melbourne Cup might stop the nation, but we’re seeing an activist-and punter-led pause with regard to horse racing ethics. In a here’s-some-we-prepared-earlier manoeuvre, activists widely shared a graphic video.

Shot after the Cox Plate, a fortnight before the Melbourne Cup, the video showed some 20 racehorses with variously debilitating injuries awaiting death in knackery pens. There’s no retirement plan for racehorses – they are either in racing condition, or considered ‘wastage’, their fate sealed at the euthanising hand of the vet, or those of knackery workers.

We use social media for sharing LOLcats, but academic Henry Jenkins predicted we would eventually use it for ‘more serious purposes’, as has begun to happen.

The Brisbane Lions AFL club discovered this a few months back. It received fervent condemnation across social media when news leaked that it planned to parade a terrified, caged lion around the pitch next season, rather than a sweaty, willing, human mascot in a lion suit.

Sea World (USA) similarly found its attendance rates and share prices plummeting after the release of the documentary Blackfish, and attendant social media-based campaigns. The film investigates the circumstances surrounding the process of capturing orcas, containing them in tiny tanks and forcing them to perform pithy shows. Hint: it ends badly for both orcas and humans.

Likewise, a greyhound racetrack slated for Queensland’s lower socio-economic region of Logan has been denounced. Besides the issue of greyhounds receiving similarly poor treatment to racehorses, activists argue it is irresponsible to encourage gambling in a region whose residents can ill afford it.

More balanced media coverage of major sporting events like the Melbourne Cup is also increasing. Crikey political editor Bernard Keane skewered the event; Michael Leunig drew a nonviolent alternative, the Spring Carnival of Quiet Stillness.

Post-race, one journalist wrote that they’d placed their last bet; another asked if the Melbourne Cup was past its use-by date. Meanwhile, First Dog on the Moon anthropomorphised horses with a ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ interview about work conditions. These cartoons and articles were shared widely.

Contemporary activists are well-prepared and social media savvy; less berating and more focused on solutions than in previous generations. (Case in point: the once fist-shaking Greenpeace now creates clever, popular culture-referencing content such as ‘If you like it then you shouldn’t put a rig on it’ to highlight oil-related environmental issues.)

Media theorists contend successful social media content requires the complementary components of spreadability (that is, it must be easily shareable through social media posts, tweets and so on) and ‘drillability’ (it must be comprehensive and detailed enough to allow audiences to ‘drill down’ to find out more).

Jonah Sachs demonstrates this with his spreadable, drillable, emotionally engaging videos: The Meatrix, Grocery Store Wars and The Story of Stuff, which focus respectively on the difficult topics of factory farming, organic versus pesticide-laden food, and electronic waste.

Activists have long been seen as party poopers, but social media is enabling them to reshape their activism and to reach people in innovative, sustained ways. It also empowers the public to participate – with social media, everyone can make their views known. This represents a power shift too; one-to-many broadcasting has been replaced with many-to-many content sharing.

Sure, social media is built on, and encourages, weak ties, and weak ties rarely initiate high-risk activism. But social media is ‘a first point of contact, a place to say “I believe this”, “I agree with you”, “this should change”, and finally “let’s do something about it”’.

We’re wrestling with some uncomfortable truths, and with our own complicity in making them so and allowing them to remain unchecked. Few of us want to be put off our champagne and canapés. Even fewer of us want to be accused of being the fun police. It’s all fun and games until a horse breaks a leg, right?

The overriding issue and source of discomfort, though, is what using animals in sport says about us as humans. That we enjoy drinking ourselves into messy oblivion, and betting on horses who are suffering from stomach ulcers and experiencing internal bleeding while being whipped to run ever faster. As a friend noted: Have you ever noticed that the funnest parts of the races are not those that involve watching horses run around a track? Which reinforces the answer we already know: The party really isn’t worth it.

Image credit: Peter Miller/Flickr