An Online Vigilante Is Shaming Bad Behavior on Public Lands

Intagram account calls out online influencers for behaving poorly in national parks

When California exploded in a “super bloom” of flowers this spring, Instagram exploded with it, as hordes of selfie-taking tourists descended on the delicate florae. Now an anonymous online vigilante is trying to shame influencers who are trampling the plants they claim to love.

photo of superbloom in California
Recent wildflower superblooms, like this one in the Mojave desert, often attract hordes of visitors. Some of the visitors damage the flowers they claim to love as they snap photos for their social media feeds. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

On an Instagram account called Public Lands Hate You, the author adds caustic commentary to images of destruction or carelessness, such as a recent shot of a woman presenting a bouquet of recently uprooted poppies. “Here’s a new low,” they wrote. ”Not just trampling. Not just picking flowers. But pulling the entire plant, roots and all, out of the ground! … Someone please make this stupidity stop.” The author noted that the poster was broadcasting the behavior to more than 13,000 followers.

The posts are part of a trend toward social-media shaming of bad behavior on America’s public lands, and have prompted brands to break with misbehaving influencers, as well as investigations from the National Park Service.

“The public lands are my vacation home. That’s where I go to get away,” the account’s creator said in an interview with The Guardian. The 31-year-old man lives in the US Pacific north-west and has visited every national park in the lower 48 states. He has seen the bad behavior in person but it is what he encounters online that angers him most.

“You have got these influencers who have access to 100,000 people. They are posting things that I don’t think they even think about what the impact of that picture could be,” he said. “And there’s an exponential affect. People keep posting and posting and posting”.

Here's a new low. Not just trampling. Not just picking flowers. But pulling the entire plant, roots and all, out of the ground! Zoom in. You can still see dirt dangling from the roots. . . . On top of broadcasting this asinine behavior to 13,000+ followers, this “influencer” was there with children. What do you think those children learned? Ugh. Someone please make this stupidity stop. . . Edit: this photo has been deleted by the original poster. Thanks for all YOUR help! You all made this possible! However, I think it is reasonable to expect a public apology from them, and a post about proper wildflower ethics to educate their followers, don't you? . . @jaclynzarp . . #pickingwildflowers #pickingflowers #unethical #nextgeneration #forprofit #profitfirst #publiclandshateyou #protectourplaces #walkercanyon #walkercanyonpoppies #disrespect #selfish #ignorance #peoplesuck #illegal #publiclands #superbloom #superbloom2019 #poppy #poppyfield #ourpubliclands #protectyourpubliclands #seesomethingsaysomething #wildflowers #wildflower #trampled #flowers #highimpact #leavenotrace

A post shared by OUR PUBLIC LANDS HATE YOU (@publiclandshateyou) on

In recent years, driven by what he believes is Instagram-fueled enthusiasm, he said he had witnessed a striking escalation in the number of people breaking the rules outdoors: leaving trash on trails, feeding woodland creatures, and lighting campfires where they are forbidden.

Last month, a helicopter landed in the middle of the super bloom. At a popular spot in Arizona called Horseshoe Bend, overwhelming insta-fame has led local authorities to install a car park that can accommodate 300 vehicles and metal railing at what was once a lonely overlook.

The Instagrammer is also concerned that social-media-inflected expectations can put inexperienced outdoorsmen in danger. Photoshopped pictures depicting hikers in places where they shouldn’t be, like on top of the arches at the eponymous national park in Utah, might be enough to convince someone to attempt a dangerous, illegal climb.

The National Park Service is paying attention to these images, which are also cropping up on accounts like @JoshuaTreeHatesYou and @YouDidNotSleepThere, highlighting improbable camping locations. “Illegal activities posted by individuals on social media platforms have led to investigations and prosecutions by law enforcement,” Kathy Kupers, a spokeswoman for the NPS, confirmed in an email.

Brands are taking note as well. On Sunday, a post on Public Lands Hate You included screenshots of contrite messages from companies including perfumer Skylar, footwear manufacturer Blundstone and phone-case maker Hitcase. “We do not condone that behavior,” read a message apparently from the Skylar account, though it was not immediately clear which photograph or influencer were being referred to. “We are very disappointed and will not be partnering with her on any campaigns in the future.”

An online petition that launched seven months ago calls for Instagram and Facebook to “implement a system allowing users to report violations that are both illegal and harmful to the environment,” and has more than 18,000 signatures.

“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,” photographer Elisabeth Brentano, who started the petition, said in an email. “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.”

Brentano said she received calls from community and policy representatives at both companies, but said they ultimately told her that they were unwilling to act.

While many people add vituperative comments to these posts, this could be counterproductive. Social media algorithms elevate posts with the most clicks, said Freddy J Nager, a content strategist and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California who teaches a class on influencers.

“If you do something outrageous you may get hate comments but the algorithms can’t distinguish sarcasm,” Nager says. “They just count the comments.”

Public Lands Hate You has claimed other victories. A post was taken down from YouTube after the account called attention to it. Many would-be targets have simply blocked him.

It has also won unwanted attention. Last Friday, he said his account was flagged for harassment and bullying, and a post comprising three photos of flower-frolicking influencers, which had already been liked some 3,500 times, disappeared from the feed.

By the end of the day, after The Guardian contacted the company for comment, the post was reinstated. An Instagram representative said the image had been removed in error.

He’s certain, he said, that it won’t be the last time. Even so, he won’t be dissuaded.

“People are making small choices here,” the anonymous man said. “If everybody thought just a little bit more about their small actions and the impact those actions have on the environment and the people around them, I think that a lot of our bigger problems would be much more easily solved.”

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