A series of tweets have gone viral claiming Instagram influencers are popping up at Chernobyl, the site of the catastrophic nuclear incident in the then-Ukrainian USSR that left anywhere between thousands to tens of thousands of people dead. It’s the type of story made to go viral in digital media: people, mostly young, using social media to jump around at the site of a disaster.
It’s made even tastier when the media already knows that it makes for successful content: the Auschwitz Memorial regularly has to remind people not to take photos, and people are often shamed for taking selfies at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Stories about these unfortunate and yet seemingly constant incidents are gold to a media full of people looking for something, anything, to go viral.
When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths. pic.twitter.com/TxJk9FgxWl
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) March 20, 2019
The latest incident, centred around a tweet from a random dude that’s framed in a way that isn’t close to the truth, is a clear example of how desperate we are to prosecute a part of our culture that is, sadly, just that. We are well and truly deep into the Influencer era.
In short: people be taking photos.
Social media and the rise of iPhones has made just about every location in the world a possible photoshoot location. We are witness to a new era of tourism – one documented by David Farrier in his Netflix series ‘Dark Tourist‘ – as people travel around the world to take photos where people died, or get guided tours through the drug lord hotspots in South America, or do a playful run-through mimicking the journey many people actually take to enter the United States from Mexico.
The tweet that kicked off the latest Chernobyl-inspired act of dark tourism has over 7,500 retweets and offers up snapshots of four people appearing to take photos at either the nuclear power plant or its surrounds.
“Meanwhile in Chenorbyl” reads the tweet, “Instagram influencers flocking to the site of the disaster.”
Meanwhile in Chernobyl: Instagram influencers flocking to the site of the disaster. pic.twitter.com/LnRukoLirQ
— Bruno Zupan (@komacore) June 9, 2019
Over 1,000 people have responded to the photos, calling it all a mixture of stupid, disrespectful, and content that “inspires you to quit all social media.” Of course, the four photos offered up are cropped in different ways, offering up different ideas of who took the photo and why.
The reality of the tweet changes when you realise the simple missing piece in it all: only one of these people could be considered an “influencer”, making a career off their hundreds of thousands of followers and lush swimwear line. That title falls to Julia Baessler, the model-turned social media giant whose popularity is only rivalled by her twin sister.
The rest of the photos, offering up a range of shots from a girl posing by an abandoned bus, a man holding up a geiger counter to a building, and a woman (regrettably) posing in a bikini, her back to the camera and her top off, have a combined following of less than 4,000. Hardly the numbers of an influencer.
But that’s not to get caught up in the debate around what is and isn’t an influencer. The issue with reporting on tweets like this, and reporting on hashtags and geotags and really anything on social media, is that very often everything isn’t as it seems. How do we know that any of these people are actually in Ukraine? How do we know they’re even near Chernobyl? How do we know when they were even taken? We can take a guess – and in the case of Baessler, a very easy guess – that they are where they say they are. But otherwise its a pot-shot.
For three of the photos used in the now-viral tweet, captions weren’t included. Would we think differently of the girl posing by a school bus if we knew she had written a lengthy caption discussing the reality of Pripyat, an abandoned ghost city left bare by the Chernobyl disaster? Would we care as much if we knew that she only had 369 followers? And what about the photo of the guy holding up the geiger counter? Would we care as much if we knew that he only had a little over 1,000 followers, and that his original photo only has 82 likes? The girl posing in a bikini sure looks like she’s in front of an abandoned building, and you bet your ass I wouldn’t want to be in that photo – or know anyone who was – but she only has just over 2,500 followers. Her influence might not have been as big as we thought. At least, before that tweet went viral. Do these people deserve to be put on blast by Sky News? By The Independent? By tens of thousands of people on Twitter?
All of these people might be misguided. All of these people may be taking photos, and doing things, at a place they really shouldn’t. But you can get tours of the place now. It’s a tourism destination. An easy search shows us hundreds of people who have done exactly the same thing. Is it in poor taste? Yes. Is it the result of a machine of our own making? Also yes.
The tweet works because a bunch of people hate influencers. And I get it. Classes of kids growing up on the internet watched people just like them – maybe prettier or funnier or luckier – rise up through the ranks and garner hundreds of thousands of followers. Now they just have to use social media… as a job! I hate them too. But the reality is that it is now a real career and a very, very real industry. Forbes will tell you it’s worth billions of dollars. It will be that way for a long time. It’s not going away.
The tweet at the core of dozens of articles and plenty of hand-wringing over the reality of our depressing, ego-obsessed social age wanted to point out a bunch of people clamouring for attention. The truth is that the tweet itself, and the person behind it, is the real face of the thirst for virality. Did he think all of those people were “influencers?” Did he even care? It doesn’t matter – the world has lapped it up.