On 31 October 2016, a viral Facebook status meme began circulating, claiming that the Morton County Sheriff’s Department was using Facebook check-ins to target and disrupt prayer camps at Standing Rock protests.
The rumor involved a two-part status update, along with a message that the actions described would “confuse” or “overwhelm” police officers in their purported attempts to target individual demonstrators:
“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?
If you’re sharing your location at Standing Stock:
1) Make it public.
2) Make the clarification post SEPARATE, and limit post visibility to your friends only.
3) Don’t clarify on your check-in post; privately message friends who say “stay safe!” to let them know what’s up.
4) Copy/paste to share clarification messages (like this one) because making it public blows our cover.
5) Use an alternate name in clarification posts so that when they filter out / search those terms, your post is visible to the right people.”
The message urged all Facebook users to check in at Standing Rock (no matter where in the world they actually were) and make the post public, then to add a friends-locked second post clarifying their prior post and encouraging others to do the same. Users were further encouraged to use “Randing Stock” as the “alternate name” in later versions of the rumor, in order to ensure their post was “visible to the right people.”
The claim was based on the notion that the Morton County Sheriff’s Department was using Facebook to target and gather intelligence on specific protesters at Standing Rock.
The rumor had many facets: that police were using Facebook check-ins as an intelligence tool, that their doing so was beneficial to law enforcement operations at Standing Rock, that flooding social media with check-ins would disrupt police activity, that participating in the action was helpful to the protesters, and that it was possible to stealthily maintain the ruse.
Underneath the claim was a genuine problem with the message, that people truly wishing to assist the protesters could do so simply by checking in rather than sending funds or supplies to support their efforts. Its spread didn’t account for the possibility that protest organizers might have also been thwarted by the Facebook updates.
The largest question was whether the base claim was true — did checking in at Standing Rock genuinely work to confound the Morton County Sheriff’s Departments attempts to target and surveil demonstrators?
We contacted the department about the rumor, and an officer explained not only that they were not using Facebook check-ins as a gauge of anything, but that the metric presented no intelligence value to them. The rumor suggested that protesters cited Facebook check-ins as a manner in which police could target them, but check-ins were voluntary — and if police were using geolocation tools based on mobile devices, remote check-ins would not confuse or overwhelm them. In an e-mail response, a separate officer stated:
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department is not and does not follow Facebook check-ins for the protest camp or any location. This claim / rumor is absolutely false.
We also contacted Sacred Stone Camp to determine whether they were the source of the social media plea. A representative clarified the rumor, telling us that police do sift through social media for “incriminating material” (not whether or not they were at the site, however) and to generally monitor the protests. They told us that the group appreciated the gesture of solidarity, but that the message did not originate with their camp:
There is no doubt that law enforcement comb social media for incriminating material and monitor communications.
There is no solid line between “organizers” and “others”- this is a movement, not an organization. There are many camps and points of contact, we can only verify that it did not originate from the Sacred Stone Camp FB page. We support the tactic, and think it is a great way to express solidarity.
Neither the Morton County’s Sheriff’s Department nor representatives for a large camp believed that the viral Facebook status meme was impeding law enforcement activities (although the protesters said that they appreciated the solidarity). Sacred Stone Camp maintained a fund to which supporters could donate money to support their legal defense. Although the meme drew attention to the issue, it didn’t necessarily draw material assistance.