Voice of Leadership: Recognizing the Hunting Community’s “Meta” Problem

Voice of Leadership: Recognizing the Hunting Community’s “Meta” Problem

It would be a drastic understatement to say the hunting community is drastically different compared to 50 years ago. From advances in firearm technology to the clothing we wear and even to the decoys we use, it’s fair to say the modern sportsman looks night-and-day different today from the days of wool outerwear, cork decoys and double-barrel shotguns. But no place is that difference noticed more in the modern sportsman’s world than with the creation and advances in social media.

From posting photos of hunts and staying up to date on the latest news from state and federal wildlife agencies, to engaging with hunters around the globe and making lasting relationships, it’s never been easier to stay “tuned in” to our world as a hunter if you want to be. But with huge changes in social media community guidelines and an ever-changing societal landscape, it’s also time to look at what we want the role of social media in hunting to “be” as a collective community.

First, let’s talk about the good.

Social media has provided the modern sportsman with a unique way of connecting with other hunters from around the world. Whether it’s telling the story of a first deer hunt or chronicling a challenging trek in the backcountry for elk, it offers a hunter the chance to put into words (and pictures) and share with the world something that was only possible to convey in glossy quarterly-issued outdoor magazines or personal notebooks 50 years ago.

We’ve built entire mentor and networking spaces within social media. I belong to no less than three dozen pages or groups on Facebook solely dedicated to connecting hunters with one another in specific states or regions, sharing tips and tricks, or just creating a space for a virtual bragging board. I’ve seen firsthand first-time hunters making lasting connections with seasoned hunters through social media and gaining the experience necessary to then turn around and pay it forward to other first-timers years down the road. At a time when every major hunting and conservation organization around the country is trying to work to establish mentoring networks to guide inexperienced outdoors enthusiasts, social media can be the community bulletin board for us to really address these goals.

Hunters also have the unique opportunity to use their social media presence and platforms to educate their non-hunting friends and family about the invaluable benefits hunting has—from providing conservation funding and wildlife management, to providing your family with a clean protein source, to reconnecting with nature. As this NRA website and countless other media sources shared, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, the number of urban individuals looking to escape the pandemic rose drastically. Social media feeds were flooded with photos of people seeking refuge in the outdoors.

Now for the bad.

As with anything on social media, there are always negative impacts associated with increased attention—and the hunting community is no different. From social media scouting and “hotspotting” to sharing damaging content that creates infighting within our ranks, to developing a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that every hunting photo must show a limit of ducks or a 170-inch whitetail deer: Social media truly can be a double-edge sword.

Those same hunting groups on Facebook that work so well in connecting individuals and creating lasting relationships also can create frustration and angst. Without fail, the week before any major hunting season opens you will no doubt see several posts asking questions such as: “Does anyone have a place to hunt?” or “I’m going to the local wildlife management area, where should I hunt?” or other sentiments that people often categorize as “internet scouting.” Some see it as a way for lazy hunters to capitalize off the work and scouting others have done while some see it as a genuine request for help. These posts often go off the rails quickly in the comment sections and can create infighting amongst a group of hunters.

For every ethical and responsible hunter sharing their content across their platforms in a positive light, there seems to be no shortage of those who share disrespectful or distasteful photos with harvested game and come across as showing a lack of respect for hunting and the game they are pursuing overall. By no means would I ever tell a hunter proud of his or her kill not to post their successful photos—no matter how it might be perceived by non-hunters—but there seems to be a growing trend to focus on what might generate more clicks and likes on Facebook.

These photos are often damaging ammo in the hands of anti-hunting advocates who wish to see hunting go by the wayside around the globe. I’ve been involved in a fair share of policy efforts around the country in state committee hearings or wildlife agency board rooms where anti-hunting advocates simply use content from a small minority of the hunting public to castigate all hunters in the search for justification of their cause. In the court of public opinion, we lose those battles more than we win them. Some organizations and hunting businesses have even created “style guides” for the photos they share on their pages to combat any negative attention from anti-hunting sympathizers.

Outside of potentially creating a scenario that depicts a negative image of hunters, social media can also perpetuate tribalism and the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality for hunters of all experience levels. Some brands and companies seemingly market hunting as an “all or nothing” experience where if you aren’t killing a limit of ducks every weekend, you are doing something wrong. If you aren’t wearing the right camo or don’t have the latest gear or you hunt with a specific type of firearm, you could make the argument after viewing hunting content online that “hunting isn’t for me.”

There are certainly brands and organizations out there working to tell the full story of hunting—the good and the bad and even the ugly—but by and large, very few people are showing the photos of one duck killed between five hunters or the spike buck killed on public land. Setting expectations and fixating the narrative around the “kill” in hunting can lead folks to miss out what I argue are the best things about time afield: time with friends and family, good food and connecting with nature.

Why are we being silenced?

In recent years, there have been numerous examples of hunting organizations, companies and individuals being silenced or outright banned for sharing hunting-related content across their platforms even though they are sharing photos, videos and stories from legal, regulated activities.

Famously, The Hunting Consortium had over 1,500 photos on their Facebook page removed without the knowledge or permission for allegedly “violating” community guidelines. Hunting influencers have had their YouTube and Instagram accounts flagged or demonetized for depicting hunting scenes with firearms in them or other so-called infractions that usually have certain underlying political implications.

When YouTube updated its community guidelines in 2021, it included language that banned advertisements featuring videos or accounts that show “footage of animals in distress induced by human intervention.” SeekOne, a hunting focused content company with over half a million subscribers on YouTube alone, was sent a notice earlier this year informing it that its page would be demonetized for 30 days for a violation of YouTube’s new community standards. It isn’t the only one either as other prominent hunting pages and figures have expressed frustration about their pages and channels also losing viewers and ad money from the content they share.

The broad, vague language used in these new and updated guidelines could impact any business or organization that supports hunting. And while it might not be noticeable to everyday hunters and their social media pages, it highlights a larger question about the role larger tech companies play in the content we view.

Groups like Safari Club International have noticed these trends and have even begun pushing back against larger tech companies like Facebook and YouTube for specifically singling out hunting in their updated community guidelines, even offering to meet with higher-ups from social media companies to discuss changes to their guidelines to protect hunting from losing its voice in digital media.

Facebook’s recent announcement that it will change its name to “Meta” had me thinking of the definition of the word meta, which means “showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category.” I’ll gather and collect these thoughts about social media’s role in hunting.

When I began to write this article, I’m not sure I had an answer to the question, “What do we want the role of social media to be in the future of the hunting community?” If used correctly, social media could be part of the tool we use to tell the story of hunting to the world, but if used incorrectly, it could very well be a catalyst used to end hunting as we know it. I think an easy step for all hunters would be to help police ourselves when we see bad-faith actors sharing damaging content and to prop up the voices and platforms in our community that are promoting the right things. 

About the 2021-2022 Voice of Leadership Panel
Facilitated by James “Jay” Pinsky, editor of the Hunting Wire, and Peter Churchbourne, a director with the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum, the Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed group of outdoor industry leaders who have volunteered to contribute their voices on key hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire and educate our community. Panel members include:

  • Cyrus Baird: Senior Director of Government Affairs, Delta Waterfowl
  • Karen Butler: Founder/President, SLG2, INC DBA: Shoot Like A Girl
  • Haley Fitzgerald: Conservation Leader & Hunting Enthusiast
  • Eric Morris: Producer and Host, N.onT.ypical Outdoorsman TV
  • Ken Perrotte: President of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers (AGLOW)
  • Brenda Weatherby: Director of People and Culture, Weatherby, Inc.