The Performance of Activism: Facebook Check-Ins to Standing Rock

by Dorothy Howard

Recently, people have been updating their social media profile and post locations to a few different places, namely “Standing Rock Indian Reservation,” and “Standing Rock Sioux Tribe” in concert with the #NODAPL protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. These gestures represent a novel use of location Check-ins on social media as a mode of political solidarity. NPR reports that more than 1 million people have Checked-in as of November 1st, 2016.

Why are people choosing to show support for #NODAPL through the social media Check-in? The following viral message that has been circulating, elucidates one argument:

“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. SO Water Protectors are calling on EVERYONE to Check-in at Standing Rock, ND, to overwhelm and confuse them. This is concrete action that can protect people putting their bodies and well-beings on the line that we can do without leaving our homes.”

So, the Facebook Check-in is rumored to block the effectiveness police surveillance techniques by flooding the trail so to conceal it. In this way, Checking-in is both a direct action technique, and a symbolic or socially performative act of speech done with the knowledge of an audience, and with the hope of spreading consciousness about a political issue. Meanwhile, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department continues to deny that their officers are using Facebook to find protestors’ locations.

Such a Tweet is hardly reassuring to those aware of the police’s continual use and experimentation with surveillance and tracking of protests, posting a Check-In perhaps also serves as an acknowledgement of skepticism in police’s truthfulness about their own surveillance tactics. What remains to be researched is if these methods contain any realized viability to accomplish their aims. Meanwhile, Facebook’s confirmed echo-chamber effect is another variable which might be used to understand what is going on. That is, users’ tendency to promote their favored narratives and hence to form polarized groups.” (Quattrochiocchi et al., 2016). Using the echo-chamber concept, we can explore how activists messages have a circular effect amongst peer groups who act and are influenced by the modes of participation immediately visible to them in the newsfeed.

Let’s consider Checking-in as a symbolic or socially performative act. Facebook has certainly made news into a more interactive and social experience than ever before. Through its structuring of social interaction, it has created a widespread understanding of the way that sharing (and reposting) articles can be a form of issue-curation, showing solidarity, and engaging in activism, where one re-posts to create awareness about a particular story among one’s contacts and peers. Such constitutes a sort of educative aim. In the book, How to Do Things With Words (1955) communication theorist J.L. Austin used the term “speech act” to refer to acts which offer or necessitate some sort of action or follow-up — illocutionary acts — for instance promising, ordering, or inviting. Checking-in to Standing Rock, constitutes a speech act in the sense that it works as a public sign of one’s political commitment to an issue. But unlike a promise one gives to a friend or spouse, it’s unclear what kind of follow-up such an act indicates or necessitates, or who would hold them accountable.

The sharing of socially aware news articles, and news articles about social movements, is also often done for a self-interested reason of making others aware of what issues you are following as a way to construct a particular image of oneself as an activist. This is a “low risk, high reward” type of activism in the sense that a Facebook post, or share, might occupy a considerably smaller amount of time and commitment than say, going to a protest or community organizing meeting, making signs or tactical media. At the same time, it’s a legitimate concern that Checking-in constitutes a sort of offensive, public catharsis of guilt by the social media poster/user, meanwhile, they do not change day-to-day behavior and social consciousness, and the here today, gone tomorrow short-term memory of social media and RSS feeds also works against the speech act of Checking-in, having long term effect beyond its socially performative value.

The virality of social media solidarity is extremely high stakes for the populations most deeply affected, yet when one expresses social media solidarity for the wrong reasons, or without thinking about how that content might affect the community it is trying to support, things can backfire and in fact have deeply troubling consequences. For example, when white people post their support of Black Lives Matter, white people are also enacting a public catharsis for their own white guilt. However well-intended such posts may be, they also have the potential to be triggering for those most deeply affected.

We might look to the many reports of the virality of images of police violence against black people, where black pain has been commodified in what LeRon Barton has called “racial theatre,” where images of white pain are less likely to go viral or be shared, meanwhile the virality of such deeply traumatizing images of black pain isn’t useful to those who experience racism and police violence as a daily occurrence. Such negative consequences to the virality of images of black pain is well documented: Kenya Downs reported at PBS, “When black death goes viral, it can trigger PTSD-like trauma.” Referencing the viral video of Alton Sterling, Kerry L. Beckford writes in the Hartford Courant, “ There is a difference between using social media to prevent a death and using social media to replay a death. And this is where we are, replaying the death of Alton Sterling until another African-American gets shot by the police and we repost that video, too.”

The fact that 1 million social media users might have Checked-in to the “Standing Rock Indian Reservation,” despite no reports or confirmations as to the political effectiveness of doing so, lands the act of Checking-in in the sphere of symbolic and performative action rather than direct action. While the relative newness of social media activism presents it as a confusing plane in which to act, users would do well to also consider that what might be read as solidarity-showing or educative to some, might be read as overly simplified, self-centered, and potentially traumatizing given the historical complexity of the #NODAPL issue, and the direct and long-term ties of the oppression of indigenous populations, Western capitalism, and resource extraction.

Social Media Activism as a Test-bed for Facebook Research on Mass Persuasion and Social Influence

Remember the Facebook rainbow filter deployed for those who wanted to support the legalization of gay marriage? More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to Facebook spokesperson William Nevius. Well, the filter was introduced after a 2015 Facebook Research study had already found that in March 2013, 3 million Facebook users changed their profile picture to an equals sign to support same-sex marriage when it was up for consideration by the US Supreme Court. Based on this research, the Harvard Berkman Center’s J. Nathan Matias speculated in The Atlantic, “is Facebook’s Celebrate Pride an experiment on users? Certainly his argument is convincing given Facebook’s track record.

Why should this we care if it was? Facebook’s ability to manipulate public opinion is one reason, where we have evidence that Facebook is actively invested in understanding what it deemed “massive-scale emotional contagion.” (Kramer et al. 2014) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published an Editorial Expression of Concern about the Facebook study that manipulated the News Feeds of around 700,000 users to see how the posting of positive and negative emotional content affects mood, apprehending such big data experiments by private companies seemingly do not take up the values of “informed consent” of human subjects common to grant-reliant research universities. Facebook and major corporate media ecosystems surely benefit from social media activism, and are beginning to actively encourage it. One has the choice now of a variety of Facebook profile picture filters, including The American Indian College Fund, the American Library Association, and the Animal Humane Society.

Where we can’t ignore the role online activism has played in spreading awareness of organizing efforts, including the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and Black Lives Matter, the “hastagification” or “meme-ification” of activism is a serious cause for concern. Not only because the social act of activism is becoming a commodity (in the sense of contributing to Facebook’s user data) by identifying an individual’s allegiance with a particular cause, but also because of the copious amounts of research and personal accounts which show us that Facebook plays with bias, using it’s users as research subjects.

This all to say that the political efficacy of Checking-in is highly suspect. Those who truly want to support #NoDAPL might be better off looking at how personal consumption and complicity in local institutions, jet-setting lifestyles (re: oil consumption, re: food consumption, re: art fairs, re: gentrification) has a direct effect on such issues, how your own gaze at the people on the bus might be enacting small violences, rather than changing one’s location on Facebook.*~