If your Facebook News Feed is anything like mine, it’s currently a flood of check-ins at somewhere your friends have probably never been. Swarms of people are checking in at Standing Rock, North Dakota, the site of the ongoing protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The check-in is an act of protest, but also intended as a form of cover for the people dedicated enough to show up in person.
On Monday, a rumor spread across the web that police in North Dakota were using Facebook to monitor activists protesting the pipeline’s construction. Tensions between police and protesters have been mounting for months in Standing Rock as officers have used pepper spray, tasers, and beanbag rounds against protesters, and arrested them in droves. The Orwellian rumor echoed the revelation from earlier this year that police had carried out secret surveillance of protesters with Black Lives Matter.
To fight back, those who supported the protesters decided to check in en masse to jam the authorities’ Facebook signals. It is a twist on 1990s “culture jamming,” when people and entities like the magazine AdBusters subverted corporate advertising by turning it into anti-capitalist messaging. A classic example: BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s early foray into viral memes, when in 2001 he attempted to order a pair of custom Nikes through the company’s online store embellished with the word “sweatshop.” But in this case, protesters are converting a social tool—the “check-in”—into a symbolic gesture.
The awareness-raising aspect of this is the more important outcome than the shielding of protesters from police surveillance. It’s unlikely that the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is actually turning to Facebook to glean information about protesters. A representative with the sheriff’s office told Fusion that check-in data offered no real intelligence value.
Caveat: Law enforcement agencies do routinely use services such as Geofeedia to track protesters in real-time using the location data embedded in social network posts. And the North Dakota state government’s IT department does list Geofeedia as a “social media” tool on its website.
The future of police protest tactics isn’t just riot gear and pepper spray, but surveillance. Just as protesters with Occupy Wall Street donned Guy Fawkes masks to shield their identity, social media noise could act as a shield against police tactics. However, checking in at Standing Rock on Facebook isn’t really enough noise to interrupt the surveillance signal.
It may be slacktivism at its finest, with people registering symbolic support without an IRL component, but it did work to jam another important signal: Now in my feed, all those baby photos and Halloween costume selfies are interrupted by a message that seems much more important, and impossible to ignore.