HBO’s Chernobyl has ignited a newfound interest in our relationship with nuclear power and the impacts of one of the worst nuclear disasters with history. It’s also wildly popular, which means it was only a matter of time people started looking to cash in on the moment on social media.
Tourism in the Exclusion Zone—an area deemed unsafe for human habitation which includes the abandoned city of Pripyat—isn’t new, but early reports suggest the show has sparked a wave of interest. That including Instagrammers with anywhere from dozens to millions of followers holding up geiger counters like charcoal ice cream cones, getting half naked in hazmat suits, and otherwise embarrassing themselves at the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. This is decidedly not the message the show’s creators intended to convey, and they’re urging tourists to treat the Exclusion Zone with the respect it deserves.
According to Reuters, one of the Zone’s tour operators reported a 40 percent increase in trips booked this summer following the release of the five-part miniseries Chernobyl. Another expected a similar uptick in response to the show. On one level, this is objectively good. I’m sure at least some of those newly-interested visitors will treat the site with respect and learn valuable lessons about nature’s resilience as well as how states can fail their citizens. They may even think about climate change as our collective Chernobyl moment. And any photos they share may very well inspire others to think about these issues in new ways.
But early signs also suggest some people looking to live that influencer life are heading to the region to take trite pictures that ignore the legacy of human suffering. Admittedly, many of those posting recent photos to Chernobyl area geotags have small followings, but the photos they’re posting deal in the tired tropes made famous by Instagram influencers—the centered object, the faux pensive selfie. The recent spate of viral photos cashing in on Chernobyl’s popularity even lead Craig Mazin, the show’s creator, to tweet on Tuesday that people visit the site should “please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed.”
The cycle of social media ruining things is nothing new. We saw it with influencers flocking to California’s superbloom this past spring. People are still taking selfies at World War II concentration camps. Logan Paul thought it was fine to post a video from Japan’s “suicide forest.” It’s an unfortunate tick of human nature as everyone scrambles for attention and to be part of “it” whatever the fuck “it” is. As an old man, this seems extremely stupid to me but doubly so when considering that Chernobyl remains one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.
When one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, it spread a vast plume of radioactive waste across part of present day Ukraine and Belarus. In response, a 1,000 square mile Exclusion Zone was set up, demarcating an areas the size of Rhode Island that’s unsafe for human habitation. Dozens died in the immediate aftermath due to the explosion or acute radiation poisoning. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4,000 more died, though other estimates put the long-term death toll as high as 50,000 according to a 2006 review in The Lancet along with more than half a million people at risk of cancer.
Those horrific figures don’t mean we shouldn’t visit Chernobyl or document the place it’s becoming. But as Mazin says, it should be treated with respect rather than just another stop on the Instagram merry-go-round.