By now, most have heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the protest at Standing Rock Sioux native reserve in North Dakota. Likely, the way they have heard of the protest is likely via asking their friends why their current location on Facebook shows them at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Mainstream media by and large has spent most of it’s resources covering the American election for the past 18 months, and attention for the protest at Standing Rock has largely been held by activists and Indigenous peoples’ advocates through social media. At this point in its development, social media has become as significant, if not more significant than actual real world dialogue.
Dakota Access LLC (DAL), a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners is attempting to build a pipeline across the unceded territory and sacred burial grounds of the Sioux First Nations peoples. Celebrities, citizens, and activists alike have travelled to the pipeline’s path to occupy the construction zones and halt development through peaceful demonstration, prayer, and protest camps. DAL responded to the protestors with private security guards armed with rubber bullets, tear gas, and attack dogs.
In response to the violent reaction of DAL and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), people around the globe have taken to social media to stand in solidarity with the protesters at Standing Rock. Morton County Sheriff’s Department is rumoured to have attempted to identify protestors by scouring through Facebook check-ins at Standing Rock to determine the names of activists on site. In retaliation, a viral social media post called on people around the world to “check-in” via Facebook at Standing Rock in order to confuse the Sheriff’s Department, offer a cloak of anonymity to the on-site protesters and show solidarity with the #noDAPL movement.
Since the call went out, over a million people have checked in at Standing Rock via Facebook. The effectiveness of the check-ins has been called into question as the Morton County Sheriff’s Department denies ever using social media to identify protesters. However, the number of participants is shocking.
Whether or not the check-ins are effective at obstructing officers from detaining activists, their original intent is the issue. Over a million people voluntarily attempted to confuse law enforcement and stop them from carrying out their duties. If those people made the same kind of attempts outside of the internet and physically blocked officers or refused to cooperate, they would likely face criminal charges. What the internet and social media have allowed for is intentional civil disobedience and obstruction of justice that does not face nearly the same penalties as real world protest.
In Canada, we are familiar with the Anti Terrorism Act (Bill C-51 might ring a bell) which was — and still is — famously controversial for allowing the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to obtain secret warrants, surveil, and prosecute terrorists that operate online. The controversy around it was not unwarranted, as its language is sweeping and could potentially include any act that CSIS chooses to argue as “un-Canadian” in a private closed door warrant hearing before a judge. The act of deliberately attempting to confuse law enforcement officers could be portrayed as an act of cyber-terrorism under C-51.
According to Section 129 of the Criminal Code of Canada, specifically applicable to this instance, obstruction of a peace officer is a defined as “Every one who resists or wilfully obstructs a public officer or peace officer in the execution of his duty.” In an escalated situation similar to the check-ins at Standing Rock where a check-in would be effective in confusing law enforcement, the language of Section 129 is vague enough that it could be argued to include online actions. The penalty for disobeying is up to two years in prison.
In a culture where going outside and doing things is a chore, social media clicktivism is an incredibly simple way to participate in causes you support but won’t necessarily stand in a picket line for. This doesn’t mean it is a good thing, it is simply something to add to the reality of how social communication is changing. The difference between the effort it takes to sign a petition and attending a demonstration or occupation is huge, but in the future there is potential — especially with Trump in power — for this kind of action to see similar prosecution.
As it stands in Canada, we don’t yet have to fear legal action and there has been no precedent as of yet. However, social media is a powerful tool of protest and dissent with real-world consequences. Online activism must be treated with caution and gravity and used in a manner representative of the action you feel comfortable portraying outside of the web. It’s easy to share a video you agree with, to autofill a petition on Change.org, and to check in at Standing Rock — however, recall that whatever you stand up for you must be educated about, as the possibility that you will be asked to make your case could be likely, and sitting down in the face of conflict is as good as never having ever stood up.