‘Influencers’ are ruining public lands — all for Instagram photo ops

DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images
An aerial picture taken on January 3, 2019, shows the Grand Canyon covered with snow in Arizona.

As Don Draper famously said in the inaugural episode of the hit television show, Mad Men, “advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” He continues, “it’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”

Advertising in the digital age looks much different than it did at the height of the Mad Men era. Today, many of us seek the type of happiness and reassurance that we are okay through social media rather than traditional advertising, whether we realize it or not.  

There’s no shortage of social media influencers peddling happiness on platforms like Instagram. A quick scroll through the average feed shows seemingly young, attractive, and care-free individuals hiking, climbing, and relaxing — and often doing so with conveniently placed sponsored products. 

If we’re lucky, those posts will contain a disclaimer such as “#ad” or “#sponsored,” as required by FTC guidelines, to let users know that the influencer received these products in exchange for such posts and often monetary compensation, with the hope that you, the consumer of said content, will be influenced enough to buy them.

Unfortunately, what the FTC guidelines do not cover is the aspects of influence that extend far beyond sponsored product placements. When it comes to behavior, how do we regulate social media influencers the ability to behave responsibly? 

The answer to this question is unclear, which is why it is time for Congress to get involved and search for some of these answers via its constitutional oversight authority.

The most obvious example of influencers misbehaving can be seen on the impact of our public lands. This past spring, the influx of social media influencers to California’s Walker Canyon during the “super bloom” caused city officials to close the area off to the public, citing both safety and ecological concerns, because influencers were repeatedly going off trails and trampling the flowers, causing severe damage to the soil and possibly preventing the flowers from returning this coming spring.

Influencers have consistently promoted other actions that are not only detrimental to our public lands but also illegal. This includes allowing dogs on trails where they are prohibited or off-leash in areas where they are required to be, using drone photography, littering, or ignoring keep out and no trespassing signs, all with the hopes of seeing those little hearts being tapped by people they don’t know in the hopes of getting a quick dopamine hit (and maybe a little bit of cash, too).

To discourage influencers from misbehaving, some have taken matters into their own hands, such as the Instagram account Public Lands Hate You, by utilizing “call-out culture” as a means to motivate influencers to remove content that may encourage others to emulate illegal and detrimental behavior.

A “call-out  generally “refers to interpersonal confrontations occurring between individuals on social media.” 

I recently participated in an episode of the Sweet for Certain Podcast with “Steve” — the pseudonym used by the creator of Public Lands Hate You — during which he explained why he resorts to using call-out culture: “It is effective. The goal isn’t to shame people, but sometimes that’s what works.”

Of course, this raises the further question of whether the ends justify the means; yes, call-out culture works, but at what cost? Call-outs are often akin to a snowball rolling down a hill; what starts small often quickly gains momentum and spirals out of control. Many who are on the receiving end of these comments claim that what begins as thoughtful and education-oriented questions quickly descend into harassment and bullying. 

Unfortunately, such interactions often provide the illusion that one is effecting change when, in reality, it amounts to merely ganging upon an individual. As former President Obama noted during an Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago recently, the point of a call-out should be to make progress, not to feel good about oneself because the latter “[is] not activism.”

Similarly, call-out culture is often accompanied by a rush to judgment, which leads to over-punishing people and getting the facts wrong (for example, in the instance of the Covington Catholic kids), or encouraging others to participate in what The Atlantic recently referred to as the culture of “victimhood chic” (as in the case of Jussie Smollett). 

Those who operate in the political space are, of course, already well-acquainted with call-out culture, as well as the need for greater oversight of what occurs on social media.

This is why the time is right for the House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources to hold oversight hearings investigating the role of social media influencers on our public lands.

Such a hearing would allow Committee members to understand the impact of damage to public areas as it coincides with the rise of social media, as well as the opportunity to consider legislative, regulatory and fiscal solutions that are not only more productive than the continuation of call-out culture but could also lead to better protection and enjoyment of public lands for years to come. 

Moreover, the protection of public lands is a bipartisan issue. Just last March, Congress passed far-reaching public-lands legislation — the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation Management and Recreation Act — which was signed into law by President Trump on March 12, 2019. The passage of this legislation was a rare showing of bipartisanship and uniform agreement for the 116th Congress and one that we should embrace with that hopes that it will encourage further bipartisan legislative efforts in other areas. 

According to the Wilderness Society, the legislation’s bipartisan passage is evidence that “Congress has embraced a core American value — conservation and protection of our nation’s wildlands and waters.”

Unfortunately, this core American value is under siege by careless social media influencers. Our elected officials can — and should — take up the cause before it is too late.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.

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