On Oct. 31, more than a million Facebook users "checked in" at Standing Rock Reservation, on the border between North and South Dakota. Since last March, the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal communities and activists have been blocking the construction of a crude oil pipeline, which threatens sacred sites and the tribe's water supply.
All those users who checked in had not actually traveled to the encampment. Rather, they'd been prompted by a post that went viral, claiming that the local sheriff's department was monitoring online check-ins. It asked people to "overwhelm and confuse" this surveillance effort by using a Facebook feature to signal their presence at the protest.
This was the first time this check-in strategy appears to have been so successful. But as has happened other times online advocacy has gone viral, skepticism and derision followed. Snopes, a site dedicated to debunking internet rumors, quickly posted an explanation: Police were not using Facebook check-ins to track protestors.
Mother Jones magazine described the action as a "waste of time." And by titling journalist Alexis Kleinman's otherwise helpful guide for action "Checking into Standing Rock isn't helpful," Mic expressed its ambivalence toward online activism. The piece's first sentence was clear about this doubt: "Clicking a few buttons on Facebook isn't enough to make an impact."
But that rapid dismissal was too quick. As a scholar of media and advocacy, I've noticed skepticism whenever activism has attracted lots of attention. In fact, online connections can help overcome obstacles of space, time, income and knowledge to share stories and information while linking people to each other and to opportunities for action. Indeed, Mic soon revised its article headline: "Checking in at Standing Rock on Facebook is cool -- but here's how you can actually help." That signaled an important acknowledgment: While online action alone can't solve a problem, it can be a very useful tool to mobilize people and focus attention on a crucial issue.
Concerns about surveillance
One element of the post that caught people's attention was the claim that police were electronically monitoring the protest. It was tempting to think that faraway individuals could help thwart that police effort by overloading them with false data.
While police say that wasn't happening in this case, online surveillance of activists is a real and troubling phenomenon. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has used social media to track Black Lives Matter activists and to locate vigils and actions.
Even decades ago, the practical potential of online communications for organizing and mobilizing was evident. In the 1990s, the Zapatistas in Mexico used email listservs to build support and update allies around the world. During the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, activists used Google maps and related apps to direct demonstrators to safe spaces -- and the police used that information against the protesters.
The suggestion to check in gave people not directly involved in the Standing Rock protest a plausible way to show concrete support.
The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies who were physically at the Sacred Stone camp do not appear to have called for the mass check-in action themselves. But they pronounced the Facebook activity a "great way to declare solidarity."
Indeed, the check-in identified more than a million Facebook users who cared enough about the Standing Rock protest to identify themselves publicly as supporters. Their numbers suggested a growing critical mass of public sympathy, in a size that could get the attention of politicians who could halt the construction.
In addition, check-ins could take advantage of Facebook's algorithms to draw even more attention to the protest. Facebook location updates are designed to appear on the feeds of friends and to foster connections between friends who may be physically near one another. For some, this allows meeting up at a concert or sale. But in this case, users could exchange information -- whether about the Snopes item, ways to contact government representatives to urge them to halt construction or a donation link for the Sacred Stone Camp Legal Defense Fund.
Forcing news coverage
The attention built to a point where the mass media could no longer ignore it. Before the check-in action, there had been minimal mainstream coverage of the Dakota Pipeline protest. That left protesters and supporters dependent on social media -- and alternative media sources like Democracy Now and Counter Current News -- to pass the word.
The use of social media and citizen journalism to bypass media blackouts is nothing new. Twitter and YouTube allowed protesters to circumvent the mainstream media during the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. In the summer of 2013, protesters in Istanbul took to Facebook and Twitter to report on the demonstrations and the ensuing police brutality -- while CNN Turk aired a documentary about penguins.
The Standing Rock check-in did more than share news; it became a newsworthy event on its own. A million people had told Facebook -- and therefore their friends -- that they had gone to the Dakotas to protest a crude oil pipeline. What was going on? News organizations responded.
In the process, they had to explain what was happening in this remote camp that would motivate people to go there -- even virtually. There was increased coverage, including from the Washington Post, the Austin American-Statesman and London's Telegraph newspaper. In addition to boosting coverage, the check-in action provided a story about a rising tide of public opinion supporting the protestors.
By looking at whether the check-in itself was effective, it is easy to lose sight of the true picture. That single action was never meant to be a click to save the world -- and I don't think anyone actually thought it was intended to. Rather, it took place within a larger context of a growing movement seeking options for further action -- particularly from supporters far from the actual protest site.
Most advocacy activities are not used in isolation. The check-in was, instead, a way to amplify the reach and urgency of an important issue, to connect people with each other and to offer them new ways to act.
Whether a similar mass check-in action could work in the future remains to be seen. Some may still view the idea skeptically, in part because in this case it didn't actually mislead the police. And Facebook itself has been less of a site for action and more of a way to share and exchange information. But for the time being, social media continues to offer opportunities for useful political organization and mobilization.