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Research to be presented at the 2017 Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE), July 1, 2017, University of Leicester.
In fall 2016, violent images of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest near the Standing Rock Reservation stunned the world. Facebook users saw security guards sic attack dogs on Native women and children and police fire water cannons at praying protesters in subfreezing temperatures. However, the issue had not gained widespread mainstream media and public attention until the 1,172-mile pipeline was nearly complete, after more than two years of opposition from the tribe. It wasn’t until activists shared violent images on social media that public outrage forced policymakers to act. We argue that activities which heighten public attention to an issue through social media amplification constitute what we call disruptive public participation, which may empower activists and help “outsiders” become “insiders” in decision-making.
In both the Elsipogtog and Standing Rock cases, protest was ongoing for significant periods of time before they received widespread public attention. We argue that police crackdown on Indigenous communities and associated reports of violence and spikes in arrests of demonstrators are correlated with spikes in social media, as well as mainstream media, attention. The stakes of in-person involvement in protests are incredibly heightened. The circulation of violent images on social media—shared by “water protectors” on-the-ground and from outsiders offering solidarity and expressions of moral outrage—resulted in a spike in mainstream media attention.