Why Your Facebook Friends Are Checking In to Standing Rock - The New York Times

PhotoFor months, demonstrators in North Dakota have voiced their opposition to an oil pipeline crossing an under-water source that lies on reservation land.Credit John L. Mone/Associated Press

If you’re seeing a wave of Facebook friends suddenly checking in to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Cannon Ball, N.D., online, it’s probably not because they’ve decided to travel to the site of tense protests between the police and activists against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Supporters of the protesters appear to be falsely checking in out of solidarity online — in hopes of confusing law enforcement officials they believe are trying to track protesters who are actually at the reservation.

What’s going on at Standing Rock?

Protests have been boiling over in a long standoff with the police over the fate of an oil pipeline under construction near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. On Friday, the police said they arrested more than 142 people and used beanbags and pepper spray to disperse the crowds.

Company officials say the pipeline will be a safer way to transfer oil 1,170 miles from North Dakota to Illinois. But activists say the construction of the pipeline will harm sacred cultural lands and local water supplies. Activists call themselves Water Protectors and are busy raising money online that is intended to help them operate an encampment near the protest area.

Who started the Facebook protest?

It’s not clear. But activist pages, including Stand Against Dakota Access Pipeline — No DAPL, have shared some version of a message that is all over Facebook: “The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has been using Facebook check-ins to find out who is at Standing Rock in order to target them in attempts to disrupt the prayer camps. Water Protectors are calling on EVERYONE to check in at SR to overwhelm and confuse them.”

Is the check-in movement distracting law enforcement?

No, according to the authorities.

“The Morton County Sheriff’s Department is not and does not follow Facebook check-ins for the protest camp or any location. This claim/rumor is absolutely false,” the department wrote on its Facebook page on Monday.

It’s not unheard-of, however, for the police to rely on social media to locate and track the movements of suspects, but it looks like this particular movement was started without an understanding of how the authorities would gather data — or if they were doing this at all.

Are there precedents for this?

Checking in to protests has been a favorite pastime of online observers who can’t be where the protest is but want to spread the word.

Perhaps the most notable example is the so-called Twitter Revolution during protests of Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. People changed their Twitter avatars to a green overlay and switched their locations to Tehran in hopes of confusing law enforcement officials trying to track down activists and bloggers.

These efforts don’t always work to organize on-the-ground protests, but that’s beside the point. With very little effort, online activists can use social media to bring more publicity to a cause, the latest example being the Standing Rock check-ins you may be seeing on your Facebook feed.

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