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Social Media Made the World Care About Standing Rock—And Helped It Forget

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A thousand protesters stayed put. The snow piled up around their tepees, but they dug in as caravans of supporters and journalists drove away. The Dakota Access Company planned to run the last segment of an oil pipeline under Lake Oahe, but the Army Corps of Engineers had given the protesters a reprieve when it ordered an an environmental review of the project in early December. Still, this core group of Standing Rock Sioux seemed to know that when the spotlight faded and the hashtags stopped trending, their fortunes could change. They knew what could happen if the world stopped watching—and the world did, thanks in no small part to the platforms that made the protests so visible in the first place.

Today, President Trump signed an executive memo aimed at allowing the Dakota Access Company to finish the last bit of pipeline—a small segment that needs to go beneath the lake. A separate memo reportedly enables the completion of the Keystone Pipeline, which President Obama had rejected last year.

“We are shocked and dismayed by today’s news because it puts water for millions at risk,” Phillip Ellis, spokesman for Earthjustice, the legal team representing the Standing Rock Sioux, says. “This move is legally questionable, at best. And based on what we know about Trump’s financial dealings in the Dakota Access Pipeline, it raises serious ethical concerns.” (Trump had a financial investment in Energy Transfers, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipelines, but sold it late last year.)

The memo orders the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite and approve permits that would let the project go forward without completing the environmental review. That review had put the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline on hold until regulators assessed alternate routes around the lake, a process that could have taken years. It was a step protesters, environmentalists, and even the Environmental Protection Agency believed was necessary, since the studies the Army had taken earlier in 2016 were deemed in insufficient.

Earthjustice argues Trump’s memo doesn’t supersede the law requiring the review. Nevertheless, the Army may respond to the order by granting the Dakota Access Company an easement under Lake Oahe, in which case the company would theoretically have the legal authority to press on immediately. (Dakota Access, which declined repeated requests for comment, filed a lawsuit in December arguing it didn’t need an easement at all.) The Army did not return a request for comment.

“Trump’s decision to give the go-ahead for the Dakota Access Pipeline is a slap in the face to Native Americans and a blatant disregard for the rights to their land,” says Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. “The Trump administration should allow careful environmental impact analysis to be completed with full and meaningful participation of affected tribes.”

‘We’ve Been Forgotten’

When the Army Corps’ order came through in December, thousands left the protest camps at the behest of tribal leaders, and attention shifted away from those who remained. Afterward, conditions in the camp reportedly became chaotic. Protesters alleged violence was roiling the camps, and that cellular service was being intentionally interrupted (WIRED was unable to verify either of these claims). Police arrested some of those still at the camp. Facebook Live streams, which had worked to bring the #NoDAPL battle before the world, became less frequent. Today, when President Trump issued his order, I couldn’t find a single Facebook live stream from the protest site. In the fall, at the height of the protests as thousands went to North Dakota to support the tribe, dozens of feeds were live at any given time.

“We’ve been forgotten,” says Josh Long, an activist who had travelled to North Dakota in the fall and stayed through the winter.

Still, the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux want to continue. Ladonna Tamakawastewin Allard of the Standing Rock Sioux, who has hosted protesters on her private land in Fort Yates, took to Facebook as reports of the executive order came out, urging people to keep standing. In Washington, DC, activists backed by the Sierra Club planned to rally. The Democratic National Committee, in response to Trump’s memo, urged Democrats on their mailing lists to sign a petition affirming that they will fight against climate change. And Earthjustice vowed to sue if the Army issues the easement. “President Trump appears to be ignoring the law, public sentiment and ethical considerations with this executive order aimed at resurrecting the long-rejected Keystone XL pipeline and circumventing the ongoing environmental review process for the highly controversial Dakota Access pipeline,” Ellis says.

But the whiplash of the news cycle and the short attention spans exacerbated by the Twitterification of politics worked against those efforts. On Tuesday, the hashtag #DAPL trended nationwide for a little while, and then was eclipsed by chatter about the Academy Awards nominations. If social media and live streaming enabled the Standing Rock Sioux to amplify their protest for clean water, its speed and ceaseless flow also allowed the world to forget about them. The videos and tweets and Facebook posts will persist in the historical record that is the Internet, but that likely won’t stop Dakota Access Company from burrowing under Lake Oahe as soon as it can.

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