This week we saw social media used in a new and novel way – a call for people nationwide to use Facebook’s “check-in” feature to express solidarity with protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Social media’s been around for a good 15 years now; Facebook for 12 of those years.
During that time, we’ve seen the power of social media to occasionally cut through the self-promotional BS or messages between friends and truly affect real-world events.
- Election Protest in Moldova
In April 2009, Twitter was instrumental in organizing and galvanizing protesters of the parliamentary election results in Moldova. Initially started by university students, the week-long protests resulted in riots, a harsh crack-down by government authorities, and international attention.
- Facebook Safety Check
Facebook Safety Check was first used to broadcast the safety of those affected by Hurricane Ruby in the Philippines in 2014. It has since been activated for events ranging from the Paris terror attacks in November to the mass shooting in Orlando’s Pulse Night Club in June to the terror attacks in Paris in November.
- The Boston Marathon Bombing
Real-time multi-lingual analysis of Twitter, combined with cutting-edge geolocation technology, was instrumental in the identification and capture of suspects in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Still, given how often social media is used to spread views on political issues without (necessarily) translating to real-world action, it’s exciting when we see social media channels being used in ways that transcend the digital world.
Such an instance occurred this week, when more than 130,000 Facebook users from around the U.S. “checked in” at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They did so in solidarity with the Native Americans there who were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The 1,200-mile pipeline runs through land that has belonged to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for generations. In recent weeks the protests have highlighted tensions between the indigenous peoples and U.S. oil interests, and garnered attention from environmental activists.
The local police have reacted not only by arresting the (peaceful) protesters, but also by using dogs, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
This week a post urging supporters of the Dakota Access Pipleline protesters to “check in” there via Facebook – regardless of where they actually were – went viral.
The thought behind this was two-fold:
1. To confuse the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the local police who were allegedly monitoring Facebook check-ins to identify (and subsequently intimidate) protesters there.
2. To draw nationwide media attention to the protest.
While the effort to confuse the police department was noble (and a clever and unique use of social media), it’s likely ineffective against monitoring by law enforcement.
First, check-ins are voluntary, so protesters not wishing to be targeted could simply not check in via Facebook.
More importantly, were the Morton County Sheriff’s Department truly monitoring Facebook activity (which it denied) they would likely be using geolocation software that would not be fooled by fake check-ins.
That said, the call to action drew vastly increased media attention to the protest, keeping it in the national news cycle for at least another week.
If nothing else, it was a refreshing (and new) use of social media for grassroots organizing and an effective public relations play.