Pushed off the pedestal

Graphic by Julia Hedges

Somewhere within the frenzy of Halloweekend, Yale students and Facebook users across the country found the time to “Check-in” to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.  The action was likely spawned by a post like this:

“The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has been using Facebook check-ins to find out who is at Randing Stock in order to target them in attempts to disrupt the prayer camps. SO Water Protectors are calling on EVERYONE to check-in at Randing Stock, ND to overwhelm and confuse them.
If you’re sharing your location (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*lice
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.”

Many activists checked in upon seeing this on their timelines, thinking they could, through this simple , mindless action, help a cause they believe in. Why not? I waited for the cynics’ inevitable responses to that question, which began to roll in by Monday. “It’s not true! ” “It makes no difference!” One Facebook user tried to shame posters by saying it created dangerous circumstances for the in-person protesters, though the post was later deleted. Then there were those who, in their infinite millennial wisdom, posted to say: “You guys are dumb for falling for this and bad for your slacktivism.” And these didactic sages, somewhere buried deep in their self-righteous post policing, have some good points. But the people “Checking-in” to Standing Rock and creating web traffic for #NoDAPL are not nearly as unproductive or self-congratulating, as those who castigate them on Facebook. Posting on Facebook to correct what you deem inappropriate engagement is arrogant and unproductive.

To be clear, there is a difference between those who offer a list of alternative, potentially more effective ways of getting involved and those who write what I’ll call Shame On You posts. Slacktivism is unproductive, and these “Everyone post this on your wall” trends are perfect opportunities for serial slacktivists to seem woke and engaged. In fact, those who are more informed and share additional information are helpfully responding to the question implicit in the bulk of Facebook activism: “What can I do to help?” And these more substantive responses provide the second step: follow up action, which is essential for those who wish to make a genuine contribution.

Some of these posters, however, either skip out on including helpful follow-up information or still can’t resist the Holier Than Thou strategy, reprimanding other posters. This is where it’s problematic. These posts assume that a Check-in means the activist’s only contribution to this cause is a Facebook post. The rub of posting on Facebook, whether an activist post or a Shame On You post, is that the readers have no sense of what else the poster does. Sure, when someone posts #NoDAPL and calls it a day, that causes unwarranted pride in having made no real difference.  But a Check-in on Facebook does not necessarily indicate a lack of other action. Just as a critical response that says: “Everyone posting #NoDAPL, you’re doing nothing. Go out and do something real” in no way indicates the poster has actually contributed anything.  These critics of Facebook activism can now proudly smirk at on their computer screens when their less bold but equally validation-needing Facebook friend comments “OMG THIS THIS THIS.” The irony of crafting an even less productive, similarly lazy post seems to be lost on them.

Then there are those who, hoping to be helpful, suggest only monetary follow ups to written (in)action. But this creates an elite level of activism only accessible to those who have the funds to spare. Furthermore, this idea that only monetary contributions are helpful is incorrect. Calling your representatives or the company in charge of constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline in opposition allows you to lend your literal voice to the cause rather than your virtual one. But hey, go ahead and post, too. Adding another tally to the #NoDAPL hashtag count, or “confusing the local police” certainly has minimal value but is not valueless. Worst case scenario, you raise awareness about an important issue. But the best case scenario of writing a Shame On You post is you reveal to your Facebook friends how high your horse is.

To the smug of the Internet I’ll make a couple concessions: first, post whatever you want. It doesn’t matter that much. But try to be more self-aware about what you’re contributing to the conversation. And you’re right, we shouldn’t endorse the idea that social media engagement alone has the power to solve the problems we fight to solve. These posters are calling people out for the right things, but don’t post and call yourself a hero. Call North Dakota’s governor Jack Dalrymple,  (YCYale College ‘’70, ) at 701-328-2200. Sign the White House petition ( Call the Army Corps of Engineers at 202-456-1414. Call the White House for goodness sake (202-456-1414)! But whatever you do, don’t make a post complaining about those who figured the worst case scenario of Checking-in to Standing Rock was that it was a hoax that could still raise awareness on an issue of concern to them.  Criticizing slacktivism without contributing to the cause is is just as inactive as any slacktivist, and it’s even less helpful.

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