Encouraging the social media generation to behave more responsibly outdoors.

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People all over the world enjoy sharing their outdoor adventures on social media, and while it is a source of inspiration for many, it can also have quite a few negative effects on the planet.

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. Some examples include burning fires, camping and flying drones in areas where parks and law enforcement have banned these activities. Such violations have led to life-threatening situations and destruction of habitat, among other consequences. Other examples include trespassing on closed sections of parks/historical sites, disturbing/feeding wildlife and vandalism. Staging and Photoshopping images where an individual appears to be doing something illegal can be just as problematic, and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics recently weighed in on this with their new social media guidelines, asking the digital generation to be "mindful of what [their] images portray." 

When photos of a location gain popularity on Instagram (via the geotag and hashtag features, plus shares or "features"), the result is often a surge in visitation. Unfortunately a number of outdoor destinations all over the world have been closed or destroyed due to the negative impacts from this influx of visitors. For example, Keyhole Hot Springs, near Pemberton, B.C., Canada, which became wildly popular thanks to thousands of photos posted on Instagram, was closed for the second time in 2017 due to a "dangerous" increase in both grizzly and black bear activity, a government official told CBC. 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. The area is now closed annually from April 1 through November 15 so authorities can manage the recovery of the local grizzly bear population, according to the B.C. Provincial Government. Anyone caught at the site can be fined up to $1,000. Yet hikers still sneak in to the springs -- and post current photos on Instagram, clearly in violation of the closure, which was established to protect the lives of both humans and bears. And of course, there no way of enforcing this in the digital space. But if social media is part of the problem, why not make it part of the solution?

I would like to propose that Instagram/Facebook act immediately and implement a system allowing users to report violations that are both illegal and harmful to the environment. These reports could be submitted to an outdoor ethics department at Instagram/Facebook that would consult with and/or work in conjunction with nonprofits, scientists, parks and law enforcement to assist in the citation of users (both individuals and companies) -- and ensure that these photos do not continue to get shared on social media. In addition to that, Instagram/Facebook would provide flagged accounts with appropriate resources on responsible recreation, protecting the environment and volunteer opportunities, so they might be able to correct their actions and help everyone in the outdoor community work together.

Furthermore, I believe this data should be made available to the public, so companies and organizations can better evaluate individuals (aka “influencers” or “content creators”) with large followings on social media before approaching them to work on campaigns. Companies, especially when running ad content on their Instagram channels, need to be just as accountable as the content creators. I believe every user should be given a chance to correct their behavior, but repeat offenders should have their accounts disabled if they cannot abide by the laws created to protect and preserve the outdoors.

A number of national parks in the United States have sizable social media accounts (and the staff to manage them), and they have used Instagram and Facebook to help issue citations for illegal droning, illegal fires and disturbance of wildlife. Assisting the National Park Service with such citations would ensure that more people follow laws designed to keep the parks thriving, and the money collected from fines would enable the parks to better serve (and educate) the public.

If you agree with what I've proposed, please share this petition with as many people as possible. Social media is a place to start discussions and initiate change, and if a company like Facebook took a stand and showed their support for protecting our parks and wilderness, that would truly be heard around the world.