Petition wants tourists to stop taking damaging selfies

high jungle swing
Public Domain Unsplash

Currently, nobody is held accountable for posting pictures of illegal behavior on social media.

Social media makes people do crazy things when they're travelling. It's no longer enough to get a picture of the Grand Canyon; now you have to do a handstand on the edge. Climbed a cliff overlooking deep water? You'll probably want someone to get a mid-jump shot. Or maybe you're like the woman I saw climbing over a barrier at the Athabasca Glacier, despite signs stating that multiple people have died doing it, to get a photo "without a fence in the background."

In a worst case scenario, these antics kill a person who has sadly misjudged their ability to pull off a stunt. You might be tempted to shrug it off as Darwinism at work ("if they want to be idiots, let them"), but the real problem is that the location itself often suffers longer-lasting repercussions.

When a stunning or unusual destination is photographed, geotagged (its specific location stated in a post), and shared widely on social media, it draws visitors; and these visitors then do the same thing, imitating silly poses or taking them to the next level in their quest for likes. Often these Instagram-driven performances are illegal, violating local bylaws that have been put in place to protect native species, natural habitats, or historical sites. But the pictures still get posted and applauded by an admiring audience, and the user is never called to task.

A new petition hopes to change that. Titled "Encouraging the social media generation to behave more responsibly outdoors," it calls on Instagram and Facebook to start holding users responsible for posting pictures of illegal activity. Elisabeth Brentano is a travelling photographer and writer who created the petition. She wrote,

"When individuals use Instagram to publicly post photos and videos of themselves breaking the law and engaging in activities that are harmful to the environment, there is seldom any legal recourse. Worse yet, when shared by larger accounts, publishers or brands, this content has the potential to reach millions of people. Whether it is an honest mistake or a flagrant violation of federal laws, it ultimately does the same amount of damage. Without any sort of regulation, it is impossible to stop the spread of media that might encourage other Instagram users to engage in similar illegal and damaging behavior."

View this post on Instagram

“What’s your favorite spot on this trip so far?” Nicole didn’t even wait a second before replying, “Escalante.” From the canyons to the post-hike pizza at Escalante Outfitters, I’d have to agree with her. Though parts have been amazing, overall, this trip hasn’t been easy. I’ve been stressing over other work I have to finish, and driving long hours and dealing with 90something degree temps is draining. Nicole and I get along great, but I’m not a morning person and I get very grouchy when I don’t sleep well and I know I have a lot to do. I know I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine at 6am when we’re trying to shoot something. I feel like we should be getting more photos, and like I should be sharing more here. But honestly, who gives a shit about whether I post 24/7 coverage on Instagram to maintain my “numbers” and not lose followers? That’s not what this trip is about. It’s about seeing new places, getting dirty, growing and sharing some of that with you guys. We still get to do stuff like THIS. We get to climb down into a canyon with arches and water and trees and deer and sleep there. (After obtaining permits, of course 💁🏻‍♀️.) And we get to show you what these public lands mean to US — and why you should visit and help preserve them for other folks to enjoy too. For every seven days of smashed toes, cloudless skies and closed campgrounds, we get towering rock formations, fiery sunsets and epic backcountry sites. And that’s why we do what we do. No one said it was easy. But damn, can it be rewarding. #createyourtrail #mypubliclands

A post shared by Elisabeth Brentano (@elisabethontheroad) on

She offers the example of Keystone Hot Springs in British Columbia, which is now closed between April and November every year to help the local bear population recover. The closure is attributed to an excess of visitors:

"Thanks to the hot springs' notoriety on Instagram and a dramatic rise in visitors, the amount of garbage left behind by careless hikers also spiked. Multiple bears in the area became habituated to food and displayed aggressive behavior towards humans, with one documented report of a bear charging a hiker."

Brentano's solution is for social media companies to implement a system whereby users can report violations and flag accounts that show illegal or damaging behavior. Facebook and Instagram would have 'outdoor ethics departments' that work in consultation with national parks, scientists, conservation groups and more to ensure that these photos don't get shared. The information would be made public so that companies and brands can better evaluate the influencers with whom they choose to work.

The idea obviously resonates with many people, as the petition has gathered nearly 14,000 signatures at time of publishing this article. You can read and sign it here.

Petition wants tourists to stop taking damaging selfies
Currently, nobody is held accountable for posting pictures of illegal behavior on social media.

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