“Fake News” and the Outdoors: What Do We Lose When We Promote What We Don’t Have?

If you live in Virginia, you may have seen an intriguing post being shared on your social media channels this week about an “active volcano” in the Shenandoah Valley near Harrisonburg, Virginia. “When one thinks about Virginia’s diverse natural landscapes, visions of the mountains, rivers, green rolling hills and coastline often come to mind,” the post opens. “But what about an active volcano?”

What follows is a description of Mole Hill, a small rise in the landscape near the town of Dayton in northern Virginia. The post, which has been shared nearly 10,000 times in two days, then provides some scenic photos of Mole Hill, discusses it as an active volcano, and encourages folks to visit the site at the end of the post.

There’s just one tiny problem, though: Mole Hill is not an active volcano, and there aren’t any active volcanoes in the entire state, let alone the entire eastern seaboard of the U.S.

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Mole Hill outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia – NOT an active volcano. (Photo in public domain via Wikipedia)

What Mole Hill is – or, more accurately, what Mole Hill was – is a formation composed of igneous rock, a type of geologic deposit that does have its roots in volcanic activity. The activity that created this rock, though, happened some 50 million years ago, and the “volcano” is not active in any way today. While it’s true that Mole Hill is unique from a geologic perspective due to such a deposit of igneous rock occurring where it does and being formed during the time in which it was created, that’s about where the intrigue stops for the non-geologically inclined. Fascinating? Sure. An active volcano that’s a must-see? Not at all.

The source for this overblown article was Only in Your State, a website that aims to promote “a fun, informal approach to helping readers discover things to do in each of the 50 states.” In reality, Only in Your State appears to operate more in the vein of a “clickbait” site: one that posts sensational, attention-grabbing articles mostly to get ad clicks and, therefore, revenue. It’s not part of the Commonwealth’s official tourism apparatus, nor does it appear to have any physical presence as a publication linked to local governments or tourism groups. The media – photos, videos, and the like – that the website uses almost exclusively seem to be pulled from other online sources, and the authors of posts rarely seem to have visited the sites they’re writing about themselves.

If there’s a buzzword that’s become overused already in 2017, it has to be “fake news.” At risk of overusing the term even more, though, that’s what these types of articles are. Like political fake news, there’s a kernel of truth to the Mole Hill story, but what most of this article does is create a fantastic legend with exaggerated facts and misapplied labels, presumably to get clicks. And like other types of fake news, people on social media lap it up. The Only In Your State post on Mole Hill has been shared some 10,000 times in 48 hours based on the site’s own stats, with several thousand other shares on Facebook and commenters talking about wanting to check out the “volcano” for themselves.

…which brings us to the other problem with this story: Mole Hill is on private property. It’s not part of a public park at all, there’s no trail leading to it, and public access is limited. Yet here it is, being promoted to the masses as a tourism asset and misrepresented as something much more attractive than it really is.

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A screenshot from Only In Your State’s Facebook post on Mole Hill

“Fake News” and the Outdoors

The response to false or overblown articles like this one is often “what’s the big deal? It’s not like the post is hurting anyone, after all.” Like other types of fake news, though, omitted or incorrect details can hurt a place. In the case of Mole Hill, the consequences are obvious. With tens of thousands of people reading about the hidden, active volcano that Virginia residents just have to see, it’s entirely possible that whatever poor soul owns Mole Hill could have their property inundated in the coming weeks with unsuspecting tourists looking to come see something that doesn’t quite exist as promoted.

It’s a story we’ve heard before. Residents of Southwest Virginia will be familiar with the case of the Devil’s Bathtub, a small, unassuming swimming hole tucked into a remote corner of the Jefferson National Forest. We’ve written about all of the gory details involving the Devil’s Bathtub before, but it’s a similar tale to Mole Hill:  a scenic but none-too-special swimming hole became promoted on social media with color-enhanced photos, incorrect directions, and sensationalized details on the hike. Since those details seemed (and, in reality, were) so implausible given the context of the surrounding region, literal of thousands of people set out in search of the famed Bathtub, trespassing on private property and turning an isolated trailhead into a trash-ridden mess.

Only In Your State didn’t cause the Bathtub’s woes, but they’ve almost certainly inflamed them. A sensational post on their site, similar to the one on Mole Hill, touts the trail as a “little-known oasis” accompanied by a number of false or misleading items. These include claims that:

  • The Bathtub is “one of the most beautiful spots in the entire state.” (While that’s obviously subjective, this claim is bizarre. The Bathtub is one of countless similar small swimming holes in the southwest part of the state, not a top scenic attraction for all of Virginia.)
  • The water is “crystal blue.” (It isn’t; while clear and indeed scenic, the neon blue hues in photos shared on the site are due mostly to oversaturation of color.)
  • The trail is the “perfect spot for a little picnic.” (Instead, the hike is rough due to multiple, deep stream crossings, developed parking is nonexistent, and lost and/or injured hikers are commonplace – all important info not mentioned anywhere in the post.)

The number of times that post containing the above inaccurate or misleading info has been shared, by the way? More than 140,000. And visitors take notice of the fact that reality doesn’t match the trail’s promotion when they visit. Take, for example, a quote from this post from a recent visitor to the Bathtub who was lured by its social media buzz and drove more than 5 hours to reach the trailhead – a visitor who, like others, arrived at the trail unprepared and ended up with minor injuries as a result of the hike:

“Instagram filters and Facebook hype skewed our expectations, leaving us disappointed.  We sat and devoured our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while listening to the sound of the water gently fill the sad pool.”

It appears that these posts become so popular in part because clickbait sites “boost” their posts by periodically promoting them on Facebook and other outlets, a process that can be targeted to particular areas or demographic groups to generate clicks and revenue. As a result, thousands of people see the post appear in their social media feeds, click on the sensationalized info, and set out in search of the trail. The pattern has become so predictable that locals brace for a slew of new traffic and lost hiker rescues at the Bathtub every time a new clickbait post appears on social media sending unprepared and misinformed visitors to the trailhead.

Is There a Solution?

Whether it’s the Bathtub or Mole Hill, these types of social media-driven outdoor overuse nightmares have become their own phenomenon in recent years. As Molly McHugh writes on The Ringer:

“Many of these visitors, lured in by inspiring, jealousy-inducing Instagram posts, aren’t prepared for what a location requires of them. And that threatens the very thing their social media presence prizes: beauty.”

Problems like these now exist not just in Virginia but all across the nation, which begs the question: is there anything that be done to stop it?

Unfortunately, much of the trend in misleading or outright false online content about the outdoors seems to be a creature driven by the nature of the internet itself. Prior to the advent of blogs and social media, for example, a story like the one on Mole Hill would have had to be run by an editor at a magazine or similar outlet to get published. And since no such active volcano exists in northern Virginia, most editors would stop the pitch at the door. And even then, the fact-checking processes in place with most legitimate media outlets would have caught incorrect details before making it to print, creating a more truthful article with less sensational content.

Today, though, that’s not the case. Anyone with a blog or social media handle and enough followers can quickly and efficiently distribute faulty info to the masses, creating public lands problems in their wake with little to no accountability. It’s something that is next to impossible for land managers to predict, and by the time problems become apparent, the damage has already been done: the word has been put out, and the crowds are coming.

That ultimately means that it’s up to us to be careful consumers of content. A good rule of thumb is that if you see something that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Before you share it to your friends and followers, give it a quick Google search to see if other info exists on the topic (hint: if a place is really as good as a post says it is, other people will have written about it). If the info doesn’t check out or seems overblown, don’t share it. That simple rule can go miles towards stopping bad information about the outdoors from spreading online, and it can help keep local outdoor assets intact for generations to visit and enjoy. The same goes if you’re with a local tourism authority or government office: while it’s tempting to promote any website that mentions your area, check a source out for accuracy first before sharing a post and inadvertently shooting the region you serve in the foot.

Finally, if you’re writing a piece to promote a place yourself, don’t go it alone. Be responsible, and look up information on the site first. If it’s a public trail on a national forest or in a state park, for example, there’s an agency and staff in charge of managing it – and they’d love to give you correct and reliable info on the place to help promote it responsibly. Give them a call or send them an email first, and they’ll make sure that you have the facts straight before publishing anything on that site. Otherwise, we all risk sending the wrong info out to people and making unnecessary mountains out of a Mole Hill.

 

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