Social media was famously used in 2009, when thousands of Twitter users around the globe switched their location settings to show that they were in Tehran, Iran in an effort to thwart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime from using Twitter to target Iranian protesters.
This moment in social media history has been nicknamed by some as the "Twitter Revolution." It was a pivotal time for the Iranian Green Party and proponents of social media as a protest tool, but Global Voices editor Hamid Tehrani is quoted as saying, "The West was not focused on the Iranian people, but on the role of western technology. Twitter was important in publicizing what was happening, but its role was overemphasized." And American political commentator Charles Krauthammer said of the Twitter Revolution that, "There was a lot of romantic outpouring here thinking that Facebook is going to stop the Revolutionary Guards. It doesn't. Thuggery, a determined regime that is oppressive, that will shoot, almost always wins."
Needless to say, Twitter and social media as a whole has evolved a lot since 2009. And certainly this is not the only example of social media being used as a means to protest authoritarianism, but many of us remain overemphatic about its importance. Social media clearly has a use in protests, but it's hard not to notice how easily we tend to get distracted from a problem and jump prematurely from one dilemma to the next. This routine often makes it seem as if social justice is just a fad and that we all just sit around focusing on the cause of the week without ever following up to see if last week's issue was resolved.
This week, protests against the the Dakota Access Pipeline are the go-to internet issue. The months-long protest surrounding the pipeline has been undoubtedly both noble and salient, but a recent social media rumor served to further popularize the cause.
Initially, someone planted the seed that if people from all around the world checked into Standing Rock on Facebook, authorities would have a difficult time using social media to track the whereabouts of actual protesters. The Morton County Sheriff's department has since released a statement denying the use of using Facebook check-ins as a means of tracking protesters. (Although, why would an organization intent on secretly spying on activists admit to secretly spying on activists?) Also, the North Dakota state government's IT department lists Geofeedia–a somewhat controversial social media surveillance tool marketed to law enforcement agencies–as among its utilized social media tools, which implies that mass Facebook check-ins alone likely wouldn't be enough to throw off the surveillance data.
Honestly, between the Patriot act, the NSA, and a very loose understanding of my personal freedoms, I have no idea which law enforcement organizations are allowed to my cyber-info. But I do know that I don't have time to read all those terms and conditions every time I update my phone, so I just assumed that I had already signed away all my privacy when I signed up for Pokémon Go.
The Sacred Stone camp also stated that the camp was not involved in the release of the initial request for Facebook users to check into Standing Rock, though they have been quoted as saying that they "support the tactic, and think it is a great way to express solidarity."
I was in the vastly under appreciated Group D. Everyone in Group D changed our Facebook profile pics to the Dakota state flag. We didn't receive much media coverage, but we made about as much of a difference as everyone in groups A and C.
Ultimately, it's unclear what effect the Facebook check-ins had. We know that social media can be used to raise awareness, which is a step towards making a difference. But even when social media informs everybody and their grandma about an issue, knowledge alone won't automatically fix what's wrong. Often times, millions of people know about a particular problem and are still powerless to stop it–like with global warming, world hunger, or movies directed by Mel Gibson.
Plus, the concept of raising awareness seems to vaguely encompass any conversation about an issue. Like, if you checked in to Standing Rock and posted, "I stand with Standing Rock in solidarity. Water is life," then you raised awareness. But if I post, "Hey, I think this is an important issue that a lot of you are glomming onto right now because you feel lost and you hope that this will ground you. I think you know deep down that these check-ins don't really make that much of a difference and that you're only participating in this trending issue so that if the government steps in and the protests are successful, you can feel like you were a part of the winning side despite having contributed nothing of value to the cause. I think that if you're honest with yourself, you'd realize that you care less about the issue at hand and more about being perceived as the type of person who cares about the issue at hand and that you want to feel good about where you stand on an issue more than you want to actually make a difference," then I am also technically raising awareness.
I'm actually raising awareness as I type this column right now, and that means I have to type with only one hand because I'm busy using the other hand to pat myself on the back for being so brave.
Much more importantly than raising awareness, this recent flurry of viral Facebook check-ins has led to a huge donations spike for the protestors at Standing Rock, pushing them past the million dollar mark. And that's great news, because money is the best catalyst for change. Protestors can use donations towards their defense fund and to help cover operating costs. And in reality, any amount of money is worth more than some faint, distant emotional support.
There's potential for the Sacred Stone camp to raise more than that, because there's also an immense capacity for fundraising through social media. The 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, was lampooned by some for being a fad that took place during a drought in California and in the midsts of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the end, though, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised $115 million, 67% of which went to researching ALS.
Less impressively, social media also made it possible for an old high school friend of mine to raise $500 through a GoFundMe account to produce a performance art piece of him reading Chuck D's lyrics over classical music. The piece is called It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Bach.
Right now, what we know is that this check-in fad helped raise money. So everyone who donated money has made an impact. Outside of that, we just have to wait and see to know what kind of an effect this will have. Because raising awareness is the easy part. Solidarity is another step. Donating money is an even more important step after that. And maybe this time we won't stop there. Maybe this time we won't lose interest and forget what we were fighting for.
But who knows. Sometimes we get it right, and other times we cause a whole lot of fuss and end up shrugging our shoulders at the realization that we never actually gave a fuck, and we were all just joining in because it seemed like the right thing to do and because we're all desperate to be a part of something.