I experienced some social media backlash after posting a selfie from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Beyond the usual problem of annoying comments, this experience raises questions about our current social media use.
Ferris wheel selfies
The iconic ferris wheel in Pripyat, abandoned inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since the accident in 1986, is a good place to take a selfie. Don’t take that from me: even the guides inside the zone told us that we just stopped to take pictures. One of the carts of this structure–never used as the accident occurred a few days prior to its inauguration–still emits high levels of radiation because it wasn’t properly decontaminated in the months following the disaster.
I took a picture in front of it with a friend and uploaded it to Instagram and Facebook. Shortly thereafter, the social media police made me aware of my grave mistake: putting on a smile in a place where I wasn’t allowed to smile. My Instagram post saw an array of (to me, unreadable) comments in Cyrillic, either insulting me or telling me how insensitive my post was.
As with most outrage these days, this instance is also the result of media construction. A number of clickbait websites (they will remain unnamed, as listing them would only further their reach) were using some of the more “outrageous” examples of Chernobyl selfies and mocking them online. This made commentators flock to Instagram and Facebook, calling people out on their behaviour.
As I write this piece, I am sitting in my dad’s office (during a family visit to Luxembourg). In front of me hangs a large picture of the Twin Towers, taken during a visit to New York in 1999. My father had it made into a poster after the attacks on 9/11 as a way to remember that he had been there. Given the nature of how pictures have changed and the advent of the selfie, he might have taken one in front of the World Trade Center had he traveled there 20 years later. He sure takes some horrible selfies today.
Is it different, though? Instagram is just a means of communication that is quicker and with considerably more outreach, but our personal use of the platform isn’t dissimilar to taking pictures and putting them into an album. Unless you’re an actual influencer on social media, you will probably just spend your time on the app looking at your own posts, much as you would with a photo album. In the same way I’d have shown a photo album of my trip to my friends, I posted my picture to Facebook. I was checking in.
While I could have justified this by explaining that I am a reporter and that I produced a radio report and a long-form article on the subject of what I had seen on the premises, that would have been a cheap excuse for something that was unrelated to the actual work I was doing.
The bottom-in is this: the commentators demonstrate faux moral outrage on behalf of people who aren’t even offended. Visiting the Exclusion Zone is important to the tourism industry and the guides encourage taking pictures. The people who returned to live in Chernobyl are very happy about foreigners coming to visit and regularly organise lunches and dinners with multi-day tourists.
People would not have cared had the same selfies been posted just a year ago. If a show on HBO guides your sense of moral indignation, you should rethink your priorities.
This article was first published by Values4Europe.
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