Social Media’s Destruction of Nature

Juliette Fang, Staff Writer


May Wang

You’re scrolling through Instagram when you spot a viral landscape photo of nature, the epitome of beauty and serenity. You think of how nice it would be there, away from the rush of everyday life and one with nature. Unfortunately, many other people share the same sentiment. If you were to actually go to the spot, it’s certain that it won’t be as beautiful and serene as in the photo. While it’s a common saying to take nothing more than pictures when visiting a spot in nature, thanks to social media, even photos taken of a scenic waterfall or beautiful view will harm the environment. 

The primary reason for social media’s harm on nature is geotagging, a feature that can be found on most social media platforms and embeds the exact location of a photo. Combined with photos going viral, social media attracts a sudden influx of people to previously unknown sites that the environment oftentimes can’t handle. The over-tourism caused by geotagging and social media pollutes nature and is dangerous to people and wildlife. 

Take Horseshoe Bend, which overlooks the Colorado River and is accessible by an almost-hidden dirt trail. Thirty years ago, the trail was marked by nothing more than a dirt patch but is now surrounded by two parking lots to receive more than a million visitors each year. Why? Because in 2015, viral Instagram photos of its beautiful view were conveniently geotagged as being located in Page, Arizona. In no time at all, a crowd flooded the area faster than the park could manage. Soon, the park was filled with litter and human waste brought in by the Instagram-eager tourists.

Before 2019, about 50,000 people lived in Lake Elsinore, CA. But as soon as photos of their vibrant poppy fields went viral that spring, approximately 100,000 people, twice as many as usual, crowded in. This caused heavy traffic and inconvenience, but the environment also suffered as inconsiderate tourists picked poppies and walked off marked trails, leaving the area trampled and litter-filled. 

In both these examples, one of the prime examples for why geotagging has been so impactful was the lack of infrastructure required for such a huge number of tourists. Virality on the Internet tends to happen quickly, suddenly, and unpredictably, so it causes an enormous number of people to rush in all at once without any warning. Park services and towns simply don’t have the time to prepare.

From just a few photos, both Horseshoe Bend and Lake Elsinore became scarred by overtourism. Is the brief burst of virality on the Internet really worth it if it means that places like those become trampled and ruined? It definitely isn’t, especially since natural sites provide a coveted pocket of calm, somewhere to disconnect from the rush of everyday life. But now that viral photos and geotagging have clogged natural sites with selfie-hungry tourists, even places that are the picture of serenity are serene no more. As our world becomes more and more reliant on social media, the crowds of daily life will become impossible to escape, as untouched nature begins to dwindle. 

“For tourist spots in travel guides or burgeoning areas hoping to attract more visitors, a viral, geotagged post could drive foot traffic,” stated Christina Djossa in a National Geographic article. “But for places like Horseshoe Bend, Bogle Seeds Farm, and Kaaterskill Falls, which don’t have the infrastructure to support thousands of visitors, geotagging is one of many factors that can skyrocket tourism to unmanageable levels and affect the local environment.”

In some places, the threats caused by geotagging are becoming more and more severe, especially to wild animals. Just like how geotagged photos lead tourists right to sightseeing destinations, they lead poachers right to animals. Poachers use the coordinates in geotagged photos of wild animals to locate, track, and catch creatures. This extends from ivory poachers tracking rhinoceroses in South Africa to aquarium enthusiasts hunting for fish and other marine life in the ocean. 

In a 2012 interview, Marc Reading, who provides marketing for South Africa’s national parks, said, “The method is to send a young couple on safari with a GPS-enabled smartphone, which they use to take a photo of the rhino. The exact coordinates are attached to the picture, allowing poachers to come in after dark and track the animal.” 

While the environment suffers from geotagging, it also has a direct impact on people. As mentioned above, places overwhelmed by selfie-craving tourists often don’t have the proper infrastructure to receive them, including safety precautions. Horseshoe Bend, for example, does not have safety railings, so it is extremely easy for tourists to fall into the gorge below if they aren’t careful. Across the country at Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskill Mountains, at least four tourists died when attempting to take dramatic photos. 

Certain photos and posts should not have the ability to end lives, and yet geotagging has caused numerous accidents and poaching. Without viral, geotagged photos, it’s these events could have likely been prevented. These deaths mark a warning for the dangerous potential of social media, and we should take heed in order to stop accidents and illegal poaching from becoming widespread or even normalized. 

While some may argue that geotagging helps expose more people to locations that encourage them to enjoy the outdoors more, geotagging only makes it easier for people who don’t know or don’t care about safety and preserving the environment to overcrowd spots. People who are genuinely interested in the outdoors would have the initiative to find places for themselves. Social media can provide exposure, but virality on the Internet is unpredictable and very difficult to control, leading to events such as overtourism.

Even the tourists themselves suffer from the drive to take photos and post caused by social media. The purpose of visiting such wonders is to enjoy them and take in the view, not to scramble to find the best angle for a selfie. The ever-present influence of platforms like Instagram or Facebook pressure people into viewing their lives through camera lenses and screens rather than enjoying nature for what it is. 

It’s astounding that a single photo can cause great damage, yet natural sites are seeing it happen more and more. Thankfully, there’s a very simple way to keep social media from ruining nature: don’t geotag. Without the feature, scenic places are more difficult to access and can preserve their beauty for years to come. Not posting a cool selfie is a small price to pay for protecting the land, wildlife, and other people from decay.


Graphic courtesy of May Wang