As a defining factor of life in the modern world, social media is an essential tool for advancing activist movements such as the recent protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project.
Presented to the public in June 2014, the $3.7 billion project involves the construction of a 1,134 mile-long underground oil pipeline. The pipeline would stretch from oil fields in North Dakota, winding through South Dakota and Iowa, and end on an oil tank farm in Illinois.
Those severely criticizing DAPL raise concerns about its necessity, potential harms it will impose on the environment, and its impact on climate change. Local native tribes, including the Meskwaki and Sioux tribal nations, also fear how the pipeline built along ancestral lands will effect their cultures. Protesters not only sharing these issues but also documenting the movement on social media have attracted the attention of not just the national but also the international community.
Social media has proven to be the greatest ally and strongest supporter of activists determined to put an end to the DAPL project. After a post asking Facebook users to check in at Standing Rock went viral, the Los Angeles Times reported nearly 1.3 million people checked in as a sign of support.
Vocal celebrities such as Shailene Woodley, most famous for her roles in the "Divergent" series and "The Fault in Our Stars," have been instrumental in drawing more attention to the protests. While in North Dakota, Woodley livestreamed the protest to 40,000 viewers and even captured her own arrest on video.
“We were going to our vehicle when they had all surrounded and waiting for me with giant guns and a giant truck behind them just so they could arrest me,” Woodley told her audience. “I hope you’re watching this, mainstream media.”
The absence of mainstream media outlets covering the event made some headlines of independent news outlets. News organizations such as NBC and ABC have remained relatively silent on the DAPL movement, leaving those interested to find information on social media. Although virtually everyone has access to social media platforms to stay up to date of the issue, journalists of larger organizations are failing to fulfill their duty as watchdogs of society who are responsible for informing the public by not covering the protests.
The social media aspect of the DAPL protests demonstrates how easily activism can progress through communication. One simple Facebook post led to thousands of users taking a moment to support the greater cause. It’s because of hundreds upon hundreds of social media posts that news organizations like The New York Times or CNN are now covering the issue.
Yet social media can be a short-lived phenomenon. For more than a week, newsfeeds were filled with the latest information on the protests. DAPL is now taking a backseat while newer issues take center stage. While social media is undoubtedly a valuable tool for activists, it’s not necessarily a place to sustain a movement.
Whether it’s checking in or updating your profile picture with the latest filter to show support for a cause, social media often draws the attention away from the real issue at hand. Users can easily be swept into a movement because it’s the current trend, not necessarily because they care about or even know much about the issue.
In order to be used effectively as a tool, social media should be recognized as not just an instrument used to attract attention, but also as a method of spreading awareness and educating the public about issues that really matter.