Next week I’ll be presenting new research, conducted with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Molly Simis-Wilkinson and Patty Loew, at the 2017 Conference on Communication and the Environment (COCE) at the University of Leicester in the UK. The full conference schedule is available here.

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.

We consider disruptive public participation to involve constituents who perceive themselves as outsiders to the decision-making processes, or who are from historically marginalized groups. These stakeholders make use of digital and social media applications to amplify and document dissent when traditional modes of public participation are unavailable to them. In other words, social media can become pathways to inclusion, a way to become part of the decision-making processes that they are excluded from, or marginalized within. We use the Elsipogtog First Nation resistance to shale gas exploration in New Brunswick, Canada, in 2013, and the Standing Rock Sioux resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, in 2106, as case studies to extend theory on disruptive public participation.

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.

Through these case studies of the Elsipogtog and Standing Rock resistances to government-sanctioned encroachment of extractive industries onto Native land and water, we evaluate the mechanisms of disruptive public participation. We use a mixed methods analysis in this evaluation. Through a qualitative analysis of the cultural, political media context of both resistances, we explicate the parallels and study the differences between the two case studies. In a quantitative analysis, we use a combination of human and computer coding to train an intelligent algorithm to analyze social media discourse around both resistance efforts.