On September 19, Facebook suspended the accounts of more than 200 people in connection with an event protesting the construction of the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline. The suspension shows how vulnerable activists are to the actions of social media platforms amid a pandemic, when personal protest comes at a higher risk than usual.
Indigenous activists have spoken out against the construction of the pipeline which, if built, would cut through the territory of the Wet & # 39; suwet & # 39; en Nation. The suspensions put a brake on one of the few ways activists can protest while socially distancing themselves to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There have been some problems communicating without Facebook Messenger, and Wet’suwet’en activists are rethinking how effectively they can use social media to fight back against pipeline developers.
Wet’suwet’en activists and supporters say they can remove future actions from Facebook once they are scared. They are concerned about being monitored on Facebook for their activism and worry that Facebook will again lock accounts.
A screenshot of a notice one of the activists received when their account was suspended.
In May, Wet'suwet'en activists, Greenpeace, and other environmental and indigenous groups hosted a Facebook event urging pipeline opponents to phone the pipeline's majority financier, a company called KKR & Co Inc., and E. -Bomb mail. They had planned an almost identical event for September 21st. On September 19, anyone with administrative access to the 15 Facebook pages where the event was taking place received notification that their accounts would be suspended for up to three days.
"Facebook can silence a large part of the climate movement at its own discretion without explanation for any length of time," says Lindsey Allen, Chief Program Officer at Greenpeace USA. "That's annoying." Last year, Facebook was also criticized by scientists, lawmakers and activists because misinformation about climate change could spread on its platform.
Facebook denies that the people's accounts were specifically targeted because of their activism. “Our systems mistakenly removed these accounts and content. They have since been restored and we have lifted all restrictions on identified profiles, ”Facebook said in an email to The Verge on September 21. It did not confirm how many accounts were affected or why the error occurred.
"We still want answers from Facebook"
The activists are not buying Facebook's statement. They think it's lazy that the suspension came right before their next event. Jennifer Wickham, whose account was one of the frozen, laughed at Facebook's response. "I think this is a really weak return pedal because it was a mistake," she said in an interview with The Verge. “It seems so obvious to me, just a really entrepreneurial move. I'm just thinking of the age-old saying "money talks". "
According to an analysis by CBC News, Coastal GasLink spent $ 50,000 on Facebook ads against Wet’suwet’en protests between January and March this year. The pipeline's opponents, by comparison, spent $ 3,000.
Greenpeace has continued to press the social media giant to reveal why the mistake was made. "We still want responses from Facebook because they haven't been able to demonstrate they're not part of this pattern of silencing dissent when it's impractical for fossil fuel companies," says Allen.
The 670 kilometer long natural gas pipeline, worth CA $ 6.6 billion, would rip through unrestricted indigenous territory in northern British Columbia. Protests against the pipeline have attracted international attention since January 2019 when police cracked down on protests and arrested Wet’suwet’en protesters blocking a road on their territory to prevent construction crews from entering.
"The only real way to get the word out there was through social media."
Wet’suwet’en protesters have since maintained three camps along the road, even when construction began. "They're destroying archaeological sites," says Wickham, who manages the media for one of the camps and is a member of the Wet & # 39; suwet & # 39; en nation's Gidimt & # 39; en clan. "The Kweese Trail where we know our ancestors died and were buried on this trail has been leveled."
Last year's demonstrations inspired supporters to join Wet & # 39; suwet protesters, but that ended with the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis. There are only small groups left in the camps trying to remain isolated to prevent the disease from spreading. "The pandemic hit and everything was just shut down," says Wickham. "The only real way to get the word out there was through social media and online promotions."
Because of this, activists reached out to Facebook in May to find another way to disrupt pipeline construction. 97 people registered for the event, which was described as a "communication blockade" against Coastal GasLink investor KKR & Co Inc.
"I think it has obviously been successful when people try to prevent us from taking any further action on social media," says Wickham.
Despite the suspensions, the activists are pushing their next "communication blockade", which is postponed to September 28th. They are still wondering what online activism will be like in the future, but Wickham says, "We are not going to stop."
"What we fight for is clean water for our children and our future children and future grandchildren, and for the health of our areas," Wickham told The Verge. "That is a responsibility associated with being Wet’suwet’en."