In October and November 2016 over a million people on Facebook checked-in to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannonball, North Dakota, where activists opposed to the construction of an oil Pipeline had been camping since April. They were responding to a viral post that called for the mass check-in as a way to confuse police who were rumoured to be using Facebook to target activists at the camp (Levin and Woolf 2016). Many would consider this an example of ‘slacktivism’, especially as the rumour turned out to be untrue. However, the mass check-in drew substantial news coverage and brought international attention to the concerns of the Standing Rock water protectors . A month later, in early December, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied a crucial permit for the pipeline’s planned route under Lake Oahe (Wong 2016). Was this a case where ‘slacktivism’ won? What else can the standing rock protest tell us about online activism? Find out as I discuss how online tactics of the Water Protectors demonstrate the potentialities and limitations that online media offers to activists.
From the Zapatista’s pioneering use of the internet in the 90s to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a few years ago, the prevalence of online activism has increased and has prompted various responses about the potentialities and limitations it offers. Techno-utopians celebrate the emergence of new avenues for democratic participation and political expression as well as state and corporate accountability. In contrast, dystopian responses deride the vanity, ease and insufficiency of so-called ‘slacktivism’. Scholars like Mia Fischer take a much more sober view, affirming the potential of online activism to raise awareness, mobilise support and challenge dominant narratives while also acknowledging the obstacles and limitations it presents (2016).
Fischer points out the realities of the digital divide as well as the risks of being placed under state surveillance or censored by the corporations who own online media (p.762). The online campaign organised by the Standing Rock Water Protectors demonstrates the power of online media to drive social change. It also illustrates the risks of censorship and surveillance and reveals how the same tactics can be used by adversarial groups. Additionally, while the mass check-in on Facebook can be seen as ‘slacktivism’, it was also responsible for generating mainstream news coverage and further support for the Water Protectors.
Jenkins, 2006 and Castells, 2012, both assert that online media has profoundly increased opportunities for and the capacity of communities to challenge mass media and state power (in Fischer p.757). This was demonstrated by the Standing Rock water protectors who took advantage of online media to generate solidarity and material support, as well as mobilise on-the-ground participation and deploy counter narratives. Using various social media platforms, hashtags and their own website, the water protectors were able to explain their position and reasons for opposing the pipeline as well as provide themselves with a space for publishing news and circumventing a disinterested mainstream media (Sainato and Skojec 2016). When reports emerged that activists were armed and violent and that water canons had been used to put out fires they had started, the footage captured and broadcast online by activists revealed otherwise (IndigenousEnviroNet 2016). In exposing the militarised and heavy handed response from police and private security, the water protectors were able to deploy counter narratives against police and mainstream media reports and generate even more solidarity and support. Celebrities and politicians joined the protest and wrote letters to President Obama while hundreds of US Veterans braved the cold to lend their numbers in person (Chavez 2016, Wong 2016). These events not only bolstered the water protector’s efforts they also drew mass media attention to the wider issues. In a similar vein, the mass check-in on Facebook also generated mainstream media headlines.
Along with raising awareness and solidarity and mobilising on-the-ground supporters through online media, the water protectors have also so far raised over 3 million USD through various crowd funding platforms. The monetary and material support generated through GoFundMe, Fundrazr and Amazon Wishlist has enabled the water protectors to buy supplies and maintain their physical presence as well as pay for legal costs.
The water protectors have so far been successful in preventing the pipeline’s construction, however they’re online campaign has faced various challenges. As demonstrated by Mia Fischer, activists using online media are faced with the risks of surveillance and censorship (p.762). Although police at Standing rock denied using Facebook as a surveillance tool (Levin and Woolf 2016), the possibility of using past online behaviour against protesters remains along with prospect of being identified through other social media. The risk of being censored, or silenced by media owners is another limitation inherent to the use of online media by activists. Facebook has admitted to censoring some of the Standing Rock activist’s video streams based on community guidelines and have also been accused of suppressing Standing Rock related news on its Trends platform(Emerson 2016, Constine 2016). Alongside these challenges, the ubiquity of online media means that anyone, including corporations with vested interests and greater resources, can use the same online tactics to discredit activists. This is the case with the Standing Rock protest, where various pro-pipeline groups launched the Standing Rock Fact Checker website and were also accused of creating fake Twitter profiles, called ‘sock puppets’, to convey anti-protest messages (Meisel, 2016).
The Standing Rock water protector’s online campaign shows that using online media has massive potential for activists. It also illustrates some of the limitations and challenges fundamental to its use. For now the water protectors have won. However with an incoming president who has expressed enthusiasm for, and previously held interests in the Dakota Access Pipeline, the cybersphere looks set for another viral showdown.
MUSIC: Bart Schofield – Untitled 41
CHANTING SAMPLE: freesound – dnlburnett – Taxi protest distant XY (CC0 1.0)
THUMBNAIL IMAGE: #NoDAPL Graffiti by Exile on Ontario Street (CC BY 2.0)
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Javier, C. 2016, ‘A timeline of the year of resistance at Standing Rock’, Fusion, 15 December 2016, retrieved 29 December 2016, <http://fusion.net/story/372387/timeline-nodapl-protests-standing-rock/>
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Meisel, D. 2016, Big Oil is astroturfing pro-DAPL tweets, like they did for KXL. All these accounts with 0 followers tweeted in sync: [Twitter] 13 September, retrieved 5 January 2017, <https://twitter.com/duncanwrites/status/775842719809822720>
Sainato, M. and Skojec, C. 2016, ‘CNN, Mainstream TV News Continues Ignoring Dakota Access Pipeline’, Observer, 22 November, retrieved 4 January 2017, <http://observer.com/2016/11/cnn-mainstream-tv-news-continues-ignoring-dakota-access-pipeline/>
Wong, J. 2016, ‘Dakota Access pipeline: US denies key permit, a win for Standing Rock protesters’, The Guardian, 5 December, retrieved 5 December 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/04/dakota-access-pipeline-permit-denied-standing-rock>