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Pipeline protesters demonstrate through Facebook check-ins

Holly Doll, of Mandan, N.D., an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, holds a protest sign outside the states capitol building, in Bismarck, N.D., on Oct. 29, 2016. Doll and more than 60 other demonstrators voiced their opposition to an oil pipeline crossing an under water source that lies on the reservation land. (John L. Mone / Associated Press)
Holly Doll, of Mandan, N.D., an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, holds a protest sign outside the states capitol building, in Bismarck, N.D., on Oct. 29, 2016. Doll and more than 60 other demonstrators voiced their opposition to an oil pipeline crossing an under water source that lies on the reservation land. (John L. Mone / Associated Press)
By Abby Ohlheiser Washington Post

By now, depending on your Facebook filter bubble, you’ve probably seen it: a Facebook friend “checking in” to Standing Rock, North Dakota, and then a separate post explaining the clever ploy that reads something like this:

“The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has been using Facebook check-ins to find out who is at Randing Stock in order to target them in attempts to disrupt the prayer camps. SO Water Protecters are calling on EVERYONE to check-in at Randing Stock, 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.

if you’re sharing your location at Randing Stock (which you should be doing)

1) make it public

2) make the clarification post separate, and so that only your friends can see it

3) don’t clarify on your check in, message friends who say “stay safe!” to let them know what’s up – the stay safe posts are more convincing / confusing for p*lice

4) copy paste to share clarification messages (like this one) because making it public blows our cover

5) say ‘Randing Stock’ in clarification posts so that when they filter out / search those terms, your post is visible to the right people.”

The idea is spreading like a chain letter through Facebook as a meaningful way to help protesters who are trying to block the continued construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which protesters say would endanger the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and destroy sacred burial grounds and artifacts. According to the Facebook meme, having thousands of supporters from across the country “checking in” at Standing Rock would help protesters who have been camping at the site by flooding a stream of potential intelligence for police with false information.

The thing is, no one so far seems to know who started the idea - or if it would actually work as stated. A representative for one of the major protest camps, however, told The Washington Post in an email that while the idea did not originate from them, they support the viral post because of the attention it’s directing to their cause. “We support the tactic, and think it is a great way to express solidarity,” a spokesman for the Sacred Stone Camp wrote. “It looks like the copy and paste technique has created a unique way of generating numbers of support - it’s more impactful to see thousands of our friends take the time to create a unique status update.”

The Sacred Stone Camp has been protesting the Dakota Access pipeline since April, and because of that is an important point of activity in the protests, which grew dramatically in scope in August. But, as the representative pointed out, there “are many camps and points of contact” for people protesting the pipeline at this point, and the organizational structure of the protests doesn’t really give any of those camps the authority to speak for all organizers.

Snopes tried to get to the bottom of the meme’s origins, but so far has left the matter as “unproven.” The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has not yet commented on the idea on its official Facebook page. Several activist pages that stand in solidarity with the pipeline protests have also shared the post, but it’s not clear if any of them came up with the idea, or are just passing it along like everyone else on Facebook.

As the meme spread, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that it does not track “Facebook check-ins for the protest camp or any location.” The idea that it is doing so is “absolutely false,” the department said. The Sacred Stone Camp, in its statement to us, didn’t specifically address check-ins, but it did say more broadly that there “is no doubt that law enforcement comb social media for incriminating material and monitor communications.”

In fact, as the Washington Post reported earlier this month, Facebook was one of three major social networks (the other two were Instagram and Twitter) to grant access to Geofeedia, a company that provides real-time surveillance information to law enforcement on protesters, according to an ACLU report. Five-hundred law enforcement agencies reportedly use the service, which tracks publicly posted information, including location, from social media accounts. Facebook was providing Geofeedia with a topic-based feed of public posts, the ACLU said, but cut off the company’s access to it in September.

The ACLU’s records don’t indicate that law enforcement at Standing Rock have acquired or use the sort of social media monitoring software described in their report, said Matt Cagle, Technology & Civil Liberties Policy Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. But, Cagle added, “even without dedicated software, law enforcement often conduct online surveillance of protests without the knowledge of communities and users.”

The ACLU has asked social media companies to do more to shield its users from surveillance as a result of its report on Geofeedia’s access. Cagle said that whatever the origin of this particular Facebook meme, its popularity shows support for the protesters’ cause and that people are “opposed to the surveillance and law enforcement targeting of DAPL protesters at Standing Rock.”

Facebook also has a law enforcement portal that gives investigators access to account records, one that also allows law enforcement to request other forms of assistance from the company in an “emergency.” The Baltimore County Police successfully used that emergency feature to request the deactivation of Korryn Gaines’s Facebook account in the middle of an ultimately fatal shootout. While law enforcement can and does use social media to track and investigate suspects, the meme going around today doesn’t appear to be in response to any concrete details about how the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is - or isn’t - using social media or third-party tracking tools to monitor anti-pipeline protests.

“We do think the check-ins meaningfully aid us,” the Sacred Stone Camp told us, regardless of where the meme came from in the first place.

“This check-in has created a huge influx of media attention that we appreciate. There is a massive social media following, which plays a key role in this struggle,” the statement said. “We have been ignored for the most part by mainstream media, yet we have hundreds of thousands of supporters from across the world. We appreciate a diversity of tactics and encourage people to come up with creative ways to act in solidarity, both online and as real physical allies.”

But beyond that, the group noted, it also would like supporters to become more deeply involved in the issues that feed into anger about the pipeline, and connect “with indigenous and environmental struggles in their own bioregion.”

“We also need 10,000, 100,000 people to join us here on the ground,” it added. “Now.”

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