150 of My Friends are in North Dakota

Your Facebook timeline is probably flooding with check-ins from “Standing Rock, ND”. Chances are your friends are actually in O’Neill Library or the Rat. So what’s the point? This is a new type of social activism we haven’t typically seen in the past. For those who are unfamiliar with the current situation, demonstrators are camping out throughout the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the construction of a $3.7 billion pipeline. “Protesters — including some members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — say it threatens the environment and will destroy Native American burial sites, prayer sites and artifacts.” The protests have led to a series of arrests throughout the past week. As most social activism goes, the hashtags“IStandWithStandingRock” and “noDAPL” (Dakota Access Pipeline) are trending on Twitter and Facebook. But on Monday morning, Facebook was taken over by a “trending check-in”. An intricate two-part viral post was created to encourage people to check into Stanscreen-shot-2016-11-01-at-1-29-25-pmding Rock, ND on Facebook. The community was told that the local Sheriff’s Department was using Facebook check-ins to track and target protestors. In order to create chaos and confusion, the post suggested that people check-in to make it difficult for the police to determine who was actually in Standing Rock vs. artificial check ins.

Post 1: Check-in

Post 2: Explanation of Check-in

“for those sharing their location in a move of solidarity:

if you’re sharing your location at Randing Stock (which you should be doing)

1) make it public. 2) make the clarification post separate, and so that only your friends can see it
. 3) don’t clarify on your check in, message friends who say “stay safe!” to let them know what’s up — the stay safe posts are more convincing / confusing for p*lic3. 4) copy paste to share clarification messages (like this one) because making it public blows our cover. 5) say “Randing Stock” in clarification posts so that when they filter out / search those terms, your post is visible to the right people

The Clarification:
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has been using Facebook check-ins to find out who is at Standing Rock in order to target them in attempts to disrupt the prayer camps. SO Water Protecters are calling on EVERYONE to check-in at Standing Rock, ND to overwhelm and confuse them. This is concrete action that can protect people putting their bodies and well-beings on the line that we can do without leaving our homes. Will you join me in Standing Rock?”

Often times, social activism is criticized for not creating a tangible impact. In this case, by Monday morning, over 600,000 people felt that a simple check-in could contribute to the cause. As of Tuesday morning, over 1.4 million people checked in to Standing Rock. A few hours after these posts went viral, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department posted the following message on Facebook.


This post created even more controversy and backlash from protestors. Many argued that even if the police were tracking protestors, they would deny it. The Morton Country Sheriffs department stated that this type of Facebook tracking wasn’t valuable information and that they were more likely to use geolocations from cellphones. Where did this concept of social media tracking begin? According to BBC, “the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that police had been using social media to track protesters during the Ferguson and Baltimore riots last year”. The ACLU concluded that the police used information from a data-providing company called Geofeedia. Since this incident, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have shutoff access to Geofeedia.

The source of this viral post is currently unknown (although this could quickly change as the story continues to develop). Regardless of the Sheriffs Department’s actions, the check-in was intended as a sign of support to the people protesting at Standing Rock. However, as stated by the viral post, “This is concrete action that can protect people putting their bodies and well-beings on the line that we can do without leaving our homes”. Is this really concrete action? How does this differ from a hashtag and which is more effective?

As stated by TechCrunch, the use of these check-ins reveals a big flaw in Facebook’s trending algorithm. These algorithms are a key component of social activism in determining which hashtags are worthy of becoming viral.

“A massive social media protest is exploding on Facebook, not Twitter for a change, yet Facebook’s dehumanized Trending system wasn’t picking it up.”


A few hours after the article was published, TechCrunch posted an update:

Update 3:15pm PT: About two hours after we published this post, Facebook is finally showing a Trend for #NoDAPL, which stands for “No Dakota Access Pipeline.” The fact that it says 790,000 people are talking about the Trend, between 2X and 100X the chatter of other Facebook Trends, shows just how late Facebook was to surfacing the latest in the Standing Rock protest saga.

Perhaps the use of check-ins rather than hashtags caused this delay. In order for check-ins to be an effective form of social activism, trending algorithms need to be updated to be more humanized and inclusive.




  1. cattybradley · ·

    Great post investigating the virality of a movement. I saw this all over my Facebook feed yesterday and thought it was weird that it wasn’t trending. I think this really highlights the power of social media in informing and organizing users. Regardless of whether the police were tracking Facebook check-ins, the sheer amount of people sharing and posting about this was quite large. I am interested to see how this Facebook frenzy influences coming events regarding the pipeline – did people really call representatives to protest the pipeline? Did users donate or take more actions than just check in?

  2. Thanks for sharing this post! I have also seen a lot of my own friends hopping onto the trend. One thing that intrigued me is what exactly the police would be doing with this information even if they do have it – would they stop the protests or would it just be something where the police are present where protesters are? Regardless, I thought that this was such a great way to show how social media enables a community of people who would otherwise never be able to have their voice be heard to actually vocalize their concerns and get such a large backing. As for Facebook’s algorithm, it definitely is disappointing that it takes so long for it to come up. Given that it is still relatively new, hopefully the engineers can make it more sophisticated. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Austin Ellis · ·

    Very interesting post. As you said, this really has been overwhelming my feed, and I imagine everyone else’s as well. I am very interested in the accuracy of this, to see if the police department really was using Facebook. Regardless, I think the popularity of the check-ins will be at least a good indicator of millennial support for the protestors. It gives a lot of people the chance to make some kind of impact without really having to do anything. Not to be a cynic, but I am not surprised it is trending.

  4. rohansuwarna · ·

    This a great blog post! I find this sort of activism on Facebook very important so even as Newton residents we can take a stand for something all the way in North Dakota. However, I find it very intriguing that Facebook does not have this topic trending on their “Trending” side on the right side of the page. The Editors, in my opinion, seem to be making a small mistake here. I think if they can clearly see this activism taking place they should show the trend to increase awareness. It would not seem as a political skew as some would suspect but rather, Facebook being truthful in showing its users a serious political and social issue.

  5. michaelahoff · ·

    One of my friends texted me the other day asking what Standing Rock was, but I didn’t know because I don’t have Facebook, so this was a helpful explainer. Also gotta love the police department just admitting that they can get geodata anyway. I’m sure that is more accurate, too, but there is not doubt that this had a massive impact on general awareness.

  6. cmackeenbc · ·

    I was hoping to see a post on this! Nice work. I was definitely confused when I saw the first person in my feed, a BC friend, check into Standing Rock. I am familiar with the issue and know she is pretty passionate about it, so I thought for a split second she was actually there. It’s funny that the original post called posting a “concrete action”, because I feel it falls somewhat into the category of “slacktivism” (definition: actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement). I understand that the posts were potentially helpful to protestors, and I am in full support of those who checked in, especially considering that it takes time and money to travel to protest. Conversely, it does seem like a minuscule effort in comparison to those physically there. Either way, it’s cool to see how social media is influencing events happening in real time, and the dual consequences of letting people know where you are at all times.

  7. magicjohnshin1 · ·

    Awesome post! I was very surprised when quite a few of my friends also began checking into the Standing Rock Reservation but later realized it was part of a much greater movement to support the Native American population with protecting their possession. This example yet again reaffirms the power of using social media to highlight a movement, and now it seems like social media may arguably be the best way to bring an issue to the forefront of our nation. Another takeaway I had with your article was Facebook’s delayed algorithm. This is surprising because I thought Facebook would update these right away, but I also wonder now if there were external influences that perhaps mobilize these Facebook trends. There definitely are people ensuring their appropriateness and validity, but perhaps they also can pull strings and insert or omit trends.

  8. olearycal · ·

    I actually had a friend do this and I was confused for a bit. I thought it was a really interesting form of solidarity. I hadn’t thought there was an actual reason behind it besides solidarity. I wonder if the police department was telling the truth about if they use Facebook to trace how many people are there. I personally don’t think they would because police had to estimate crowds long before facebook and it just doesn’t seem like an accurate method.

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