Why Tens Of Thousands Of People Just ‘Checked In’ To North Dakota

How pipeline protestors are using fake Facebook check-ins to try to thwart law enforcement

Your Facebook friends are probably not at this protest. — REUTERS
Oct 31, 2016 at 11:16 AM ET

There are still hundreds of people in Standing Rock, North Dakota, protesting the construction of an oil pipeline over the environmental and cultural threats it poses to the nearby Sioux tribe. And now, they’re being joined by thousands of virtual protesters, who are using Facebook’s check-in function to show solidarity — and perhaps confuse authorities.

In two hours Monday morning, more than 30,000 people checked into locations associated with the protests, including Standing Rock, ND’s page and the page for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation — taking the number from around 60,000 to more than 90,000. Often accompanying those check-ins is a post that explains why someone who is in reality thousands of miles away from Standing Rock is claiming to be there.

The logic is that they believe the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is using protestors’ Facebook check-ins against them, so if as many people as possible check in to those sites, it’ll make it that much harder for law enforcement to figure out who is truly at the protest and who is not. Some are also deliberately misspelling “Standing Rock” as “Randing Stock” in their posts — so that if authorities are searching for fake check-ins, their posts won’t come up.

This comes after authorities and protestors violently clashed last week when deputies forcibly removed protestors from land owned by the company building the pipeline. More than 140 people were arrested then, and, The New York Times reports, more than 400 people have been arrested since August.

The sheriff’s department has used Facebook frequently as the protests have ramped up, giving Facebook Live press conferences, sharing photos from the scene, and posting updates that detail alleged actions taken by protestors against them (they claim a Molotov cocktail was thrown at them and a protestor fired a gun “near” them). So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they might also be using Facebook to find protestors or monitor the situation. There just isn’t any evidence, yet, that they are doing it or that flooding certain pages with fictitious check-ins will help if they are.

The department did not respond to request for comment but did post on Facebook that it is “absolutely false” to say it is monitoring check-ins at protest locations or anywhere else.

Using location data against nosey authorities has been a tactic before; in 2009, many Twitter users changed their location to Tehran, Iran, in an effort to make it difficult for authorities to determine who was actually tweeting messages considered to be illegal from Iran (and then find and punish them accordingly) and who was just pretending to be.

If nothing else, checking in will at least give sympathizers a way of showing their support virtually if they can’t get to Standing Rock in person.

This post was updated at 3:45 p.m. to add the response from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.