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Checking In or Checking Out?

News & Features | December 5, 2016

On Monday, October 31, Tufts students noticed something different on their Facebook newsfeeds. That morning, many students checked in at Standing Rock Native American Reservation in North Dakota, publicizing their ostensible physical location there. Students had not hopped on a red-eye early Monday morning, but rather had “checked in” at the location on Facebook. Many Facebook users did this because of a claim that Morton County police officers were using location data from Facebook to track people aiming to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and believed that doing so would directly help water protectors by confusing police efforts to target them.

Along with the check-in posts, many people posted a separate note to their Facebook friends explaining the specific guidelines of how to share a location at Standing Rock effectively with instructions such as, “Water Protectors are calling on EVERYONE to check in at Standing Rock, ND, and to overwhelm and confuse [law enforcement]” and “copy paste to share clarification messages (like this one) because making it public blows our cover.” Some of these posts called on other users to create similar statuses, framing it as “something you should be doing.” Although the origin of the generic shared post was unknown, many people copied and pasted a similar message to post as their status.

“Checking in” at Standing Rock prompted many to consider their role in this type of social media activism. In the days after the onslaught of check-ins, the conversation changed. Though the check-ins were designed to protect those protesting on the ground at Standing Rock, some questioned if they were actually helping. On Monday, October 31, at 1:28 p.m., the Morton County Sheriff’s Department wrote on their Facebook page, “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.”

Even though the department claimed not to follow Facebook check-ins for information about protestor locations, over one million people shared their location at Standing Rock, according to The Guardian. This number included many Tufts students according to location statistics on Facebook. Whether or not this information disrupted police surveillance, it created a new visibility of the issue on campus and beyond. Some students felt that their Facebook activism helped to a certain extent in bringing this visibility, while others chose not to check-in because of doubt in its efficacy. Students’ choices to check-in highlighted how often visible internet activism can be tied to social capital.

On October 28 and 29, the Departments of Education and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies hosted a teach-in for Standing Rock “on the protective actions at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Cecilia Petit, a senior and co-organizer of the Standing Rock teach-in, attributed some of the success of the teach-in to the hashtag activism panel led by Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy. Petit noted how the panel was exceptionally well-attended, in part due to the teach-in running behind the planned schedule so students who were assigned to go to a later panel ended up listening to Dr. Baldy, who “implored everyone to check in and everyone did.”

“I woke up the next morning and all across my Facebook feed people were checking in at Standing Rock,” said Petit. “One little moment on campus started this crazy fire.”

Petit stated that during the hashtag activism panel, Dr. Baldy explained how Facebook check-ins are a tool that have been used by police to issue warrants for people with criminal charges, but perhaps more importantly, hashtag activism and online engagement show public and measurable solidarity. Using Twitter’s hashtags and Facebook check-ins for activism provide the “ability for people who can’t necessarily get themselves there to be participating intrinsically, a part of this movement even from far away,” said Petit.

As Petit referenced, online activism can play an important role in making a movement more widely accessible. In an article on the Huffington Post, Sabina Khan-Ibarra points out, “Social media is a more accessible way of activism for those who cannot leave the home,” citing “individuals with certain disabilities, caretakers, and those with young children” as some of the people online activism can include.

Beyond those who were present at the panel, other Tufts students also checked in. Bruce Johnson, a junior majoring in environmental studies, explained that he checked in for two main reasons. He wanted to stand in solidarity with the people at Standing Rock, whether or not the police were using data from Facebook. He also explained that he was trying to bring awareness to the issue on a highly visited platform. “I’ve been trying to share more articles that relate to environmentalism,” he said. “I think that’s one of the best way to get people of our generation to notice things. People spend a ridiculous amount [of time] on Facebook, myself included.” Johnson expressed his belief that sharing information on his social media accounts is worthwhile in that it will bring awareness to causes he thinks are important to his friends as well as decision makers. He was hopeful, and believes that “politicians make decisions based on what people want. And showing that a large amount of people care about a certain issue is one of the best ways to get something done.”

Nick Cunetta, a sophomore, also checked in at Standing Rock as a statement of solidarity with the water protectors. He thinks that checking in was a good way to show his support for the protests, albeit not a perfect one. “That type of engagement can be kind of surface level if all you are doing is saying you are there on Facebook,” he said. “But that is some level of engagement that’s better than disengaging.” He said that the large number of check-ins could prompt further thinking and work on the issue.

But Cunetta acknowledged that Facebook activism is often superficial. “Yes, it is lazy to a degree, because all the people that checked in aren’t necessarily boarding buses to go out to North Dakota right now, but there are other results of this,” he said. Cunetta hopes that people will be more versed on the issues, and “the next time they go to vote, they have this in mind, and they think it’s more important to protect native land.”

On the other hand, some students, including senior Bruno Olmedo, chose not to check in but still engaged in the online dialogue surrounding the #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) movement. Olmedo thought the check-ins “sounded convincing enough” but said, “When I was fact checking, I was more trying to figure out why it was confusing the police officers technologically; what in the software would do that? And found that it actually doesn’t do anything.”

Olmedo, whose family’s land was taken by the Bolivian government, believed the check-ins showed solidarity, but he encouraged tangible action. “Doing things that are truly going to help people on the ground instead of just checking in and just being like ‘did my duty,’ because the people there need more support than just a check-in to defend their land.” He expressed his concern over slacktivism—engagement with social movements requiring little time or effort—noting, “In the end, everyone was trying to support however they could, but it’s unfortunate that a lot of this remote activism is sometimes misguided because even though checking in was good and probably ended up raising awareness and funds…I’m afraid that for some people it was enough.”

Howard Woolf, the director of the Experimental College and a professor of Film and Media Studies, is less skeptical of people using social media simply as a form of slacktivism. He is passionate about social media’s power for good. In terms of facilitating social movements, he said social media’s ability to organize people is “revolutionary.” Woolf explained, “Many people would say that’s how Obama was elected. And certainly the Occupy movement used it extensively. Even the anti-Trump rallies had millions of people, literally, all over the country coordinating their efforts using social media.”

However, some may use check-ins and other forms of online activism to gain social capital and Woolf recognizes that being visibly active in causes can be “a way of aggrandizing yourself, or creating this image of yourself as being important and cool,” but he also notes that these “tendencies have been there forever in political activism.” Woolf believes that social media did not create a new desire for people to be recognized. He says, “I think of social media as an amplifier.”

While the Facebook check-ins directed campus dialogue to the protests at Standing Rock, the phenomenon of checking-in was short-lived, as is often the case in the cycle of remote activism. Petit questioned this: “There should be a question of, why has it just now become an exciting issue? Why haven’t [dominant institutions and predominantly White institutions] been talking about the land assaults all across the country that have been occurring since 500 years ago?”