Technology & Science

Facebook users check in at Standing Rock in North Dakota, hoping to confuse police

A viral Facebook post is convincing people to check-in at the Standing Rock pipeline protest in North Dakota. Its claim to foil law enforcement's ability to monitor protesters likely has little merit, but the approach is rallying support.

It probably isn't confusing the authorities, but it may have other uses

Protesters march in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Monday in support of the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline. A viral Facebook post has been circulating urging users to check in at the Standing Rock oil pipeline protest in North Dakota in order to 'confuse' the local sheriff's department. (Al Hartmann/Associated Press)

Not everyone you know is actually in North Dakota today, though the Facebook feeds of some people might be giving that impression.

A viral Facebook post has been circulating urging users to check in at the Standing Rock oil pipeline protest in the state in order to "confuse" the local sheriff's department. Checking in is a Facebook feature where users can let their friends know where they are — even if they aren't there.

The post says the department has been tracking protesters based on their Facebook activity, and that checking in will overwhelm its ability to monitor the protest. That has thousands of Facebook users creating a virtual check-in to Standing Rock.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters are trying to halt construction of an oil pipeline that the tribe says threatens its water sources and cultural sites.

But the sheriff's department says the claims that it is monitoring social media activity are "absolutely untrue."

And an expert on social media in conflict areas says that a flood of Facebook check-ins would probably be ineffective in diverting police from real protesters.

Software can geofence the area

"There's a bunch of other, easier ways to find out if people are there — by just searching Facebook for 'protest' or looking at the event and see which people are attending," says Tim Pool, a journalist who has covered the use of social media in conflicts around the world and in protests across the United States.

"They can just set a geofenced area around the protest camp, and everything else is just noise." 

Geofencing, or setting a geographical area for a search, is built into the software that security agencies and private companies like Securitas use, meaning anyone posting from outside of those areas won't even show up, much less cause any confusion. 

"They probably don't even have to try to ignore you; their system probably outright doesn't even put it into the algorithm," says Pool. 

"They wouldn't be very good security companies, or law enforcement agencies, if they could be confused by something this simple."

Police have been known to use social media as a tool for monitoring protests. The American Civil Liberties Union discovered that Missouri police were using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram data provided by the companies to track protesters in Ferguson, when protests erupted there over the police shooting death of Michael Brown

The ACLU says it does not know whether police in Standing Rock are using these tools. 

A new use for the humble check-in

The gesture of checking in has been called "slacktivism" — substituting a click for a real act — but some say it's at least having the effect of showing support for the cause.

"Maybe checking in doesn't do anything on the ground, but it does give the impression that it's important for a lot of people," says Peter Chow-White, an associate professor of communications at Simon Fraser University. 

"Authorities see that."

Alfred Hermida, director of the University of British Columbia's graduate school of journalism and author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why it Matters, says it could be a sign that the check-in is being co-opted for a new, political use.

"This is a way of virtually bringing people together to a geographical area," he says, adding that people from anywhere in the world can put themselves in a defined location for anyone to see, for a political purpose, even if they can't physically make it there.

"Social media collapses those geographical boundaries so you can say, 'I'm standing with you, at least virtually.'"