By Layton E. Williams 11-01-2016

Sometime over the weekend, I noticed a few friends unexpectedly “check-in” to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, N.D., on Facebook. Given the recent rise in tensions between police and the water protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, it made sense to me that some of my pastor-friends would go be a part of the protests.

Then I saw the post that has now fully made the media rounds, explaining that protesters in North Dakota were requesting that supporters check in to Standing Rock on Facebook to confuse police who were supposedly tracking protesters through the site. The post said something to the effect of:

"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 Protectors 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?"

I checked in on Sunday evening, and watched an avalanche of similar check-in posts overtake my newsfeed.

By Monday afternoon, Snopes had published an evaluation of the Facebook claim, ruling it “unproven.” They shared a statement from local police denying that authorities were using Facebook to track or interfere with protests, as well as a statement from Sacred Stone Camp confirming that while the request for check-ins did not originate with them specifically, they supported the effort.

Check-in posts continued to pop up on my newsfeed, now amended with a statement about wanting to express solidarity. What you also may have seen, depending on the diversity of your feed, was the flurry of disdainful counter-posts decrying the uselessness of the check-in move and the general “culture of slacktivism.” That term, along with its cousin, “clicktivism,” refers to the millennial rise of justice and advocacy engagement through social media — generally with little effort, money, or commitment required.

Well-known examples of slacktivism include the ALS ice-bucket challenge in 2014, viral hashtags, and profile picture filters in the wake of tragedies like the Paris attacks and the Pulse massacre in Orlando. Detractors suggest that such online movements give people the satisfaction of feeling like they’ve contributed to a worthy cause without having to make any sincere investment. And while the ice-bucket challenge did raise over $100 million, critics have pointed out that only a small percentage of participants actually donated and that the cause itself might not have been the most effective use of such large-scale funding.

On the other hand, recent studies have shown that those who support causes on social media are more likely to engage in real-life activism. And wide-scale virtual support offers sustaining encouragement to those on the ground in spaces like Standing Rock or Black Lives Matter protests. In my own experience, when Facebook flooded with red and pink equal-sign profile pictures in support of marriage equality several years ago, I was stunned to see how many people I knew supported my rights as a queer person, and that gave me the energy to keep speaking out and working for change. 

Digital platforms are a global force of connectivity — evolving the ways human beings relate and engage in community for better or worse. Pretending virtual connectivity doesn’t matter or ignoring its ability to be a crucial avenue for social change and justice is the most useless attitude of all.

This is particularly important for Christians who believe that their faith calls them to take public stands and witness for justice. A digital public square calls for a new kind of faith in action. We need to develop an understanding of what an effective virtual witness looks like.

More than 100,000 people have checked in to Standing Rock since Friday. That’s 100,000 people who have made the choice to be “checked in” to what’s going on with the Dakota Access Pipeline. What matters is not whether the Facebook check-in should have happened; what matters is what happens next.

How can folks continue to be engaged? How can we make sure that people of privilege don’t overwhelm and drown out the voices of those they’re seeking to support? How can we make sure those on the ground in North Dakota have access to the resources they need?

One answer — gleaming out across the murk of injustice in hi-resolution computer screen glow — is, in fact, the digital social space. In the wake of this weekend’s check-in phenomenon, other virtual invitations to engagement have found new exposure. An extended Facebook post from the Sacred Stone Camp is circulating with requests for financial support for their legal expenses and other action.

Churches like the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and others have also offered insights on how everyone checked-in can further engage, including an invitation to actually go to Standing Rock and join in the work.

Of course there are some people whose Facebook check-in satisfied their sense of obligation, and they now will fade back into a disengaged distance. But that has always been the risk with activism work, and the counter-measure is the same as it’s always been too: We get people to care, then we show them how to care even more and to keep on caring. After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Layton Williams serves as Audience Engagement Editor at Sojourners.  

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