WARNING: This article contains a graphic image.
Private vegan Facebook groups must be among the most active in Australia.
Thousands of vegans from across the country use the networks every day to recommend products, debate issues, crowd-source advice and shame businesses for vegan-phobic treatment.
There are even ‘vegan singles’ groups for vegan-to-vegan dating.
“Living in a world which is dominated by people who don't share your view is very isolating,” James Brooks, a 20-year-old vegan and frequent network user told SBS.
“Your whole perception of the world changes, your friends are now doing things you find horrific but at the same time you still see them as good people,” he says. “[The Facebook group] reminds me I'm not alone, it's not me against the world and I think other people feel this too – plus you hear lots of goss and drama when someone has a bad day, that's fun to listen to.”
“When I went vegan I felt a lot of judgement from my friends and family for a while,” 21-year-old vegan Ash O’Dowd told us. “It can feel quite isolating being vegan if no one understands you or why you are going vegan.”
Users of the groups are astoundingly active and very responsive.
If a member posts a question about whether a certain product is vegan, or where they can get decent food in a particular suburb, they can usually expect a response within minutes. A recent request for vegan toothpaste drew fast responses, amassing over 50 comments in just a few hours.
Eatery recommendations or condemnations are also quick to go viral.
The introduction of a new vegan burger drew hundreds of likes in a small Sydney vegan group. When a pizzeria in Newtown switched to an all-vegan menu, the group exploded.
“You have literally thousands of people listening to each other for advice and stories. When someone has a good experience at a restaurant or finds a hidden gem, it blows up,” Brooks told us. “Even something as small as offering a vegan option on the menu that isn't just chips or salad goes a long way online.”
The converse is also true. We found numerous examples of users naming and shaming establishments where staff are difficult or intentionally insulting.
“If you own a store or restaurant and were intentionally rude to any vegan customers – like mocking – we all know,” Brooks says.
There are a plethora of vegan groups in Australia and around the world. Some are regional, from major cities to smaller areas, while others focus on minorities within the minority, from ‘vegans of colour’ to ‘LGBTI vegans’ – there’s even a group for vegans who live with chickens.
Every Facebook group we came across was closed and private – when I tried to join an Australian vegan singles group, I got a message from a page admin a few hours later. She wanted to confirm whether I was single, vegan and in Australia.
Brooks told us the groups are private to prevent trolling and abuse.
“Many people feel the need to ridicule or mock people trying to not harm animals. We have admins who investigate your profile to determine if you're actually interested in being vegan,” he said. “Some slip through, but the admins work hard to sift through sometimes hundreds of requests.”
Vegans face criticism frequently, they told us, especially when they’re parents.
“Raising children vegan is a surprisingly controversial practice,” Emily Barwick says in one YouTube video, “sometimes the hardest part of being a vegan parent is fielding questions and criticisms from family friends, doctors and total strangers.”
Greg McFarlane, founder and director of Vegan Australia, has been vegan for 20 years. He says he’s seen the vegan community change significantly over time.
“It’s a lot more focused on animal rights, the environmental costs of animal agriculture, and on vegan advocacy now, and less on the personal health as in the past,” he told us.
“The internet and social media has made a huge difference. In the past there may have been one group in each state organising events. Now new groups pop up every month and in a lot more places. They hold a lot more events,” he says.
Reading through the vegan groups online, one thing becomes clear – the empathy members feel for animals can often rise to passionate debate or anger.
“I think compassion and passion often go together. Many vegans discover the suffering involved in animal agriculture in their early adulthood and feel horrified by it,” McFarlane says.
“It would be like living in a society where everyone kicked dogs. If you realised that was wrong and stopped doing it yourself, you might get frustrated with everyone else continuing to do it, giving flimsy reasons like they enjoy kicking dogs, or it's part of their culture,” he said.
Brooks is more graphic. "It's hard not to get riled up when someone is paying to have chickens mutilated, hung upside down and dunked into electrified water, cutting open their throats then chopping them into little pieces - then claiming something humane happened along the way."
"But it's important to take a step back and understand that you were once doing these things and you didn't consider yourself a bad person," he says. "That's what I think many vegans forget, put yourself back to where you used to be."
That passion isn’t restricted to vegans vs non-vegans. Some of the most heated debates occur between vegans themselves, with Facebook moderators often declaring certain issues off limits.
“I've seen so many arguments about vaccinations, honey, horses, backyard chicken eggs…” O'Dowd says, “it’s kind of an issue when we start fighting with each other because it distracts others from the real message.”
Brooks says he feels the same way. “Some people question if it's exploitation to take eggs laid from their rescue chickens. Or perhaps if having a bond with your horse allows a mutual agreement to mount it for a ride. By definition, these are not vegan – but I don't obsess over these people and grab my pitchfork.
“Contrary to popular belief we're not a cult. There is no secret vegan code must follow on every single issue,” he says.
One of the biggest flare-ups currently is a raging debate between vegan YouTube stars such as Freelee the Banana girl, teenager Tana Mongeau and various other users. Their videos are arguably more about weight-loss and nutrition than vegan ethics, but that hasn’t stopped some vicious exchanges. No one is really covering themselves in glory.
“It's totally pointless, because in the end they're both preaching the same message. The drama just distracts people and the 'angry vegan' stereotype is reinforced which is pretty counterproductive,” O'Dowd says.
“It's important to show people that veganism is a great lifestyle through positive examples – like making them food – rather than shouting at them,” she says.
“In the end no one likes any angry person.”