The Intersection of Public Lands, Social Media, and Call-Out Culture
Let’s talk about the intersection of public lands, social media, and call-outs since it seems to be a hot topic in the outdoor community at the moment. Now this starts out a little slow, but please, bear with me. It all ties together in the end, I promise. I’m going to start by breaking down each of those three components individually.
Public lands, by their very definition, belong to all of us. You. Me. Your family and friends. My family and friends. Everyone’s family and friends. They exist for everyone to use and enjoy. That also means we all have an equal responsibility to respect these places and leave them in the same condition we found them in, or ideally in BETTER condition. We all also have equal rights and the power to voice our opinions about how our public lands are used. This applies to all public lands, from the crown jewels of the National Park system like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier, to state parks and forests, to your local dog park and playgrounds. I always compare using our public lands to borrowing a tool from a neighbor. If you return the tool in the same condition as you received it (or even better condition) , you’ll gain the respect of your neighbor and they’ll be more likely to help you out in the future. Return the tool in worse condition? Chances are you won’t be borrowing tools from that neighbor again, and probably won’t be invited over for dinner.
Social media is a great tool and resource for easily sharing our lives and adventures with others with the press of a button, but it has some well documented downsides such as addiction, depression, and increased narcissism. Social media can also have a magnifying effect. Engage in some illegal behavior with a friend behind closed doors? Chances are that is going to stay between the two of you. Post that same behavior on your Instagram account? There is a very real possibility that someone could see it, comment on it, share it, and turn what was originally a private event into national news. Social media also makes it easier for people to surround themselves with likeminded people, and ignore those with other opinions or those who may not always be 100% supportive. See a comment you don’t like? Just delete it. Someone sends a message that you perceive as negative? Ignore it. This kind of self-selection and inability to consider alternate ideas is the same, albeit much less extreme, mindset that results in far-left and far-right radicalism.
Call-outs are defined by MacMillion dictionary as “to criticize someone about something they have said or done and challenge them to explain it”. Call-outs can be done publicly or privately but shouldn’t be confused with shaming, which is defined by the same dictionary as “to make someone feel guilty or embarrassed” or bullying which is defined by the National Center Against Bullying as “when an individual or a group of people with more power, repeatedly and intentionally cause hurt or harm to another person or group of people who feel helpless to respond. “ Can calling someone out cause that person to feel guilt or shame? Of course it can, especially if the person realizes they have in fact done something wrong. The difference is intention. Call-outs criticize behavior that may be illegal, harmful, or socially unacceptable with the hopes that the behavior in question may have a logical explanation, or that the person may realize they have made a mistake and correct it. Shaming is done only with the intent of hurting someone, whatever the reason may be. Can it feel like bullying if numerous people all point out that you’ve done something wrong? It sure can, but it is not in fact bullying. It might just mean that you have screwed up.
So, what happens when public lands, social media, and call-outs get put next to each other at the thanksgiving table? Well, if my personal experience is any indication, a very polarizing and vibrant conversation.
Actual Instagram account used for this example (account name changed/redacted)
Actual image posted by the Instagram account used in this example
Actual image posted by the Instagram account used in this example, with comment from the National Park Serivce
Actual response from "Sally" when she was privately called out for her behavior.
Let’s use a real-life example and run through a couple scenarios. Let’s say there is a public Instagram account called @SallysSassyAdventures (Sally) with 20,000 followers that posts lots of outdoorsy photos, and even has a couple of corporate sponsors. The account owner publicly posts some engagement photos of herself and her beau off the trail in a fragile sub-alpine meadow environment of a popular National Park. The official Instagram account for that National Park comments on the picture and an account which calls out harmful behavior on public lands called @PublicLandsHateYou (Operated by a guy named Steve) sends that person a private message. Both the message and the comment respectfully point out the behavior shown in the pictures as being harmful. This is where the road first forks.
In the first scenario, Sally sees the comment from the park service and the message from @PublicLandsHateYou. She responds to both, acknowledging that she didn’t know trampling through the meadow was so harmful, but now knows she made a mistake. Sally decides to leave the pictures posted on Instagram. They are her engagement photos after all! Sally edits the caption of the photos to inform her followers that the actions shown in the pictures are harmful, why they are harmful, and lets her followers know that she has learned the importance of being respectful of that fragile environment, and encourages her followers to also be respectful while visiting National Parks. Sally may have had to suck up a little pride and publicly admit a mistake, but everyone wins. Many of her followers thank her for teaching them something new and commend her for handling the situation so well and doing the right thing. Sally feels good about doing the right thing, even though it didn’t initially appear to be the easiest option. Last, but not least, our public lands are better for it, as thousands of people now know that trampling alpine vegetation isn’t ok. Everyone wins. Case closed.
The second scenario starts the same. Sally sees the comment. Sally decides she doesn’t want comments that could be perceived as negative to tarnish her engagement photos, so she deletes the respectful comment from the official National Park service account calling out her behavior. Next, Sally sees the message from @PublicLandsHateYou, an account that she knows calls out behavior just like is shown in her pictures. Sally blocks the account, hoping the account will just forget about her and move on. Sally’s gamble does not pay off.
Actual comment from an official National Park Service account on the images used in this example that was deleted by Sally.
The @PublicLandsHateYou account discovers that it has been blocked by Sally and that the comment from the National Park Service has been deleted. The account owner sends Sally another message from another account, expressing the disappointment in being blocked, and stating that they really hope to have a conversation about this issue. Sally’s extensive response starts promising, with her saying that she shouldn’t have posted (note the word "posted", not "taken") those photos, but quickly morphs into a tirade about the account that called out her behavior, calling the account owner a bully, accusing the account of harassing her, and generally playing the victim. Sally then blocks that account as well. The harmful content stays posted for 20,000 followers to see without any mention of the harmful behavior.
Here, the road forks again. Steve, as someone who loves all public lands, but particularly this park, can either let it go, knowing that tens of thousands of people are seeing images that suggest harmful and damaging behavior in a fragile alpine environment is ok. He knows some of Sally's followers will likely go and replicate this behavior when they visit the parks because they’ve seen it on social media and think its ok. Steve realizes that in this scenario, public lands lose, so he decides to share Sally’s publicly posted content and use it as a teaching moment, calling out the harmful behavior hopefully educating enough people to offset the miseducation being shared by Sally, resulting in a neutral outcome for public lands.
@PublicLandsHateYou shares Sally’s public content, explaining that trampling alpine meadows is not ok. A number of his followers comment on Sally’s post, respectfully expressing their opinions that they don’t appreciate her publicly sharing harmful behavior on public lands that also belong to them. When Sally gets back online, she finds that her Instagram post has “blown up” with comments that disapprove the pictures showing her harming alpine vegetation. Most are respectfully asking her to do better, to educate her followers, or to remove the post. Sally can’t believe how many people care about her mistake and decides to just delete the post. She posts a video where, like in her earlier messages, she briefly admits she made a “mistake”, and then goes on a 5-minute tirade about how she was attacked by hateful, negative, and mean people. In reality, almost every single comment made on her post by other public land owners was respectful and offered reasons why her behavior was unacceptable. Sally continues to focus on a small minority of comments that are extremely direct, but could be perceived disrespectful, ignoring the original harmful behavior that the vast majority of people are respectfully commenting on. The net result is that Sally is deeply upset, Steve looks like an a**hole, but ultimately Sally’s 20,000 followers now know that trampling alpine meadows is not acceptable, which is a win for public lands and everyone who uses them.
Let’s for a moment ignore whether or not you agree with Steve publicly calling out Sally’s behavior, and first talk about what Steve’s call-out was NOT. His calling out of her harmful behavior was not shaming her, as the intention was not to cause guilt or embarrassment, although she may have felt shame, guilt, and/or embarrassment after realizing how many people disagreed with her actions. His calling out her harmful behavior was also not bullying, as it was a one-time event where her peers were voicing their displeasure with her actions and Sally had the ability to respond publicly at any time. Again, a direct quote from the National Center Against Bullying:
Stories posted by @PublicLandsHateYou after Sally refused to acknowledge her behavior.
With that sorted out, you are still free to disagree with how Steve handled the situation. Those who value health of their public lands more than the temporary discomfort of one person who did something damaging to our public lands may agree with Steve’s approach. Those who value people’s feelings over all else may think that Steve’s approach was too harsh, that the “punishment doesn’t fit the crime”, and that one person trampling some alpine vegetation for a picture isn’t the end of the world and isn’t going to single-handily ruin our national parks. I wholeheartedly agree with that last statement and agree that by itself, the impact of the behavior shown in Sally’s picture was likely fairly minor.
However, this isn’t an isolated incident that happened in a vacuum. This was posted for 20,000 people to see. Now those people think this behavior is ok, and many of them will likely go out, replicate the behavior, and post it on social media, further perpetuating the behavior. This is occurring all over social media, with accounts that have hundreds of thousands and even millions of followers posting similar harmful behavior in an attempt to create the most visually appealing “grammable” content for social media in the quest for likes, followers, and sponsors, without a thought about how the content might influence people’s behavior and the negative downstream impacts of that behavior.
Not only do we not live in a vacuum, but sharing on social media is the opposite of a vacuum, with many people sharing with the intent of reaching as many people as possible. The cumulative effect of widely sharing these seemingly innocent and minor “mistakes" on social media has resulted in a shift in outdoor culture where these harmful behaviors have been normalized as acceptable. This effect is particularly amplified among those who might not be especially well versed in outdoor ethics, but want to visit the places they see in the beautiful pictures they find on social media. These newcomers to the outdoors are the folks who especially need to see and be educated about responsible behavior on our public lands, and unfortunately are being widely exposed to the opposite on social media.
So, how do we solve this issue? The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LNTC), arguably the most ubiquitous organization promoting the respect public lands, says that education is the solution, and for the most part I agree. Education is an extremely effective way to provide the vast majority of people the information they need to be respectful stewards of our public lands, especially when dealing with mature adults that can accept constructive criticism about their behavior as seen in the example below..
Example of a private call-out, and response from a mature adult who made an honest mistake.
However, as we saw in the true example earlier in this article, not everyone responds maturely to constructive, educational criticism no matter how kindly and respectfully they are approached. Is it because they are too narcissistic to consider they might have made a mistake? Do they feel they need to appear perfect in front of their followers and therefore can’t admit they may not have known something? Are they making so much money from their posts and sponsors that they just don’t care about the impact they have on our public lands? I don’t know why some people are incapable of acknowledging their impact, but in my opinion it doesn’t matter, because the damage is happening every single day regardless of WHY these people act the way they do.
Damaged caused in only two weeks in Spring 2019 at Walker Canyon, California by visitors ignoring clearly posted signage asking everyone to stay on the offical trails.
How do we push social norms back in the direction of people respecting our public lands and sharing content that clearly shows, encourages, and educates people about acting responsibly on our public lands? In particular, how do we deal with the small percentage of people and companies who have HUGE audiences and influence, but continue to post, share, and promote harmful behavior on our public lands even after they are informed about it?
Hi, my name is Steve, and @PublicLandsHateYou is my solution. The fact is, as I’ve clearly shown again and again and again with the @PublicLandsHateYou Instagram account, there are people that WILL NOT respect our public lands unless they recognize that there is a potential impact to their wallet, follower count, or criminal record. Sometimes the corporations that are sponsoring and paying these influencers need to be called out for their continued support/sponsorship of people who engage in harmful behavior (I'm looking at you REI). Sometimes the followers that idolize these influencers need to see how these influencers act behind the scenes by calling out hypocrisy. Sometimes enough voices need to be mobilized to speak up and criticize illegal behavior that law enforcement takes notice and takes action.
There is no doubt that the methods used by @PublicLandsHateYou and other similar accounts are effective. Posts featuring harmful behavior of influencers trampling wildflower fields have been taken down by massive accounts that have millions of followers. Corporate accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers are apologizing for sponsoring influencers who damage salt flats and backing their apologies with cold, hard cash. Influencers with tens of thousands of followers who may not have publicly acknowledged being called out for repeatedly having their dogs off leash illegally have started consistently posting pictures with their dogs leashed where it is required. It might not be glamorous, and it might not be appealing to those people and organizations who make their money pandering to corporate sponsors, but it is undeniably effective.
Response from BF Goodrich after being called out for damaging behavior on the Bonneville Salt Flats
Photo posted by @youtube that was removed after being called out by @PublicLandsHateYou
Post by the National Park Service Special Investigative Branch about the citation of, and apology from, an influencer who was repeatedly called out for illegal drone photography in National Parks. --->
So Leave No Trace Center, this is me officially calling you out for inaction on this issue. You’ve been contacted by me, and hundreds of other people, who want to know your proposed solution to harmful and illegal behavior on public lands being shared on social media. Three months ago, you said that you would respond, but you have not. You’ve blocked the @PublicLandsHateYou account and a number of other accounts that have pressed you on the issue. You’ve turned off comments on a post that specifically encouraged discussion about this issue, shutting down everyone who had legitimate questions and concerns.
Comments on a LNTC "anti-shaming" post. LNTC actually turned comments off on the post for a time.
Leave No Trace Center, it’s time for you to step up. Stop beating around the bush by sharing “anti-shaming” and "anti-callout" posts that are obviously well received by your corporate sponsors in the outdoor recreation industry and the influencers that they support.
The fact is that YOU, Leave No Trace Center, have had your behavior publicly called out in the past, and guess what? Your behavior changed! When you were called out publicly for ignoring indigenous land issues, you responded by changing your behavior, including information about indigenous lands, and moving the "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion" link on your "About" page from the 8th link to the 5th.
Leave No Trace Center, it’s great that you educate 20 people at a time through your Master Educator course and traveling trainers, but most of these people you are reaching already have an interest in the topic of protecting public lands. Based on the ever increasing disrespect and damage we all see every day on our public lands, it is clear that your approach of ignoring this issue is clearly not effective solution against massive social media accounts that disburse false and damaging information to millions of followers every single day.
If you can’t or won’t step up and effectively do the job that you were tasked with by our federal land management agencies when they and NOLS created you in 1994, then I and other individuals who truly care about our public lands will. Every single day that you ignore this issue, you are losing more ground, and our public lands are facing more unnecessary harm from misinformed visitors. So, for the love of our public lands, deal with this issue, or at the very least, stop working against those of us who have found an effective solution.