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Social media can be an important tool in raising political awareness

Over 1.4million people have ‘checked in’ on Facebook at Standing Rock, a Sioux Native American reservation in North Dakota, where protesters are fighting against a new oil pipeline which could contaminate the tribe’s water source. Facebook has so far been playing a key role in the protest. Its main aim has been to confuse the police because there is a fear that the local police department is using Facebook’s location feature to compile a list of activists who are protesting.

Whilst activists have been camping out in Standing Rock since April, tensions with the police are suddenly mounting. The pipeline is getting very close to the river now, and whilst demonstrators have remained peaceful playing drums, singing and wading into the river, the police dismantled a wooden bridge that demonstrators had constructed to access what they consider a sacred site. Last Friday, more than 142 people were arrested and the police used pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

On Sunday, supporters put out a call for help via Facebook, explaining how the Morton County Sheriff’s Department has been using Facebook to disrupt and target the prayer camps. As a consequence, the protest has essentially ‘gone viral’ with a boom in global Facebook users joining in the protest. The response was instantaneous, with number of check-ins at Standing Rock going from 140,000 to more than 870,000 just a day later.

However, despite the claims, the Morton County Sheriff have reported that they are not using Facebook’s locations to find the protest camps, they believe it would present no data of intelligence value. Therefore, remote check-ins by supporters would do little to confuse or overwhelm them.

Regardless of whether or not the check-ins have had the desired effect they have had a profound impact in dramatically raising awareness. Facebook and social media in general, are all part of a movement in which the world is becoming more ‘global’; we are becoming more consciously aware of struggles in other countries. What started as a protest of the community has spread into a global fight against police violence and the spread of fossil fuels.

Facebook has often been used in times of social injustice to spread messages and gain greater solidarity with protestors. However, whilst the show of support is often appreciated by protesters who are directly involved as it creates greater media coverage, it has sometimes been referred to as ‘slacktivism’.

It is vital that people have a greater awareness. Especially in cases like North Dakota which, despite being having been fought since April, has had very little media coverage and help. However, whilst the viral support is useful, it is often seen as final step, rather than the first. People rarely take this activism and display of support on Facebook further. A spokeswoman at Standing Rock stated that she would love more than just checking in on Facebook but instead for ‘people to take further action – whether that’s asking (an elected official) to prevent the pipeline, or calling on your state to refuse to send militarised law enforcement to Standing Rock’.

Facebook is vital in social activism these days with the fast spread of information at nearly everyone’s disposable, however it should not be viewed as the final resort, but as a way of spreading information. It is powerful, but global supporters need to be reminded that the publicity often needs to be pushed further, starting a discussion is just the start of activism. 

Image credit: Lucy Southen

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