Facebook suspended the accounts of more than 200 people on September 19th who were connected to an event protesting the construction of the contested Coastal GasLink pipeline. The suspension shows how vulnerable activists are to the actions of social media platforms in the midst of a pandemic, when protesting in person comes with more risk than usual.
Indigenous activists have opposed the pipeline’s construction, which would cut through the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s territory if built. The suspensions curbed one of the few outlets left on which activists can protest while socially distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It left some scrambling to communicate without Facebook messenger, and it has Wet’suwet’en activists rethinking how effectively they can push back against pipeline developers over social media.
Wet’suwet’en activists and supporters say they might move future actions away from Facebook now that they’ve been spooked. They’re concerned about being surveilled on Facebook for their activism and worry about Facebook suspending accounts again.
In May, Wet’suwet’en activists, Greenpeace, and other environmental and Indigenous groups hosted a Facebook event calling on pipeline opponents to bombard the pipeline’s majority funder, a company called KKR & Co Inc., with calls and emails. They had a near identical event planned for September 21st. Then on September 19th, every person with administrative access to the 15 Facebook pages that co-hosted the event received notices that their accounts would be suspended for up to three days.
“Facebook can silence much of the climate movement at their discretion, without explanation for any duration,” says Lindsey Allen, chief program officer at Greenpeace USA. “That’s unnerving.” Facebook has also faced criticism from scientists, lawmakers, and activists over the past year for allowing misinformation on climate change to spread on its platform.
Facebook denies that the individuals’ accounts were specifically targeted because of their activism. “Our systems mistakenly removed these accounts and content. They have since been restored and we’ve lifted any limits imposed on identified profiles,” Facebook said in a September 21st email to The Verge. It did not confirm how many accounts were affected or say why the mistake occurred.
The activists aren’t buying Facebook’s explanation. They think it’s fishy that the suspension happened just before their next event. Jennifer Wickham, whose account was one of those that was frozen, laughed at hearing the response from Facebook. “I think that’s a really weak backpedal, saying it was a mistake,” she said in an interview with The Verge. “It seems so blatant to me, just a really corporate move. It just makes me think of that age-old saying, ‘money talks.’”
Coastal GasLink spent $50,000 on Facebook ads countering Wet’suwet’en protests between January and March of this year, according to a CBC News analysis. Those opposing the pipeline spent $3,000 in comparison, the analysis found.
Greenpeace has continued to push the social media giant to disclose why the mistake was made. “We still want answers from Facebook because they have not been able to demonstrate that they’re not part of this pattern of silencing dissent when it is inconvenient for fossil fuel companies,” Allen says.
The CA$6.6 billion 670-kilometer natural gas pipeline would tear through unceded Indigenous territory in northern British Columbia. Protests against the pipeline have captured international attention since January 2019, when police cracked down on protests and arrested Wet’suwet’en demonstrators who were blocking a road on their territory in an attempt to stop construction crews from entering.
Wet’suwet’en protesters have maintained three camps along the road ever since, even as construction began. “They’re bulldozing archaeological sites,” says Wickham, who manages media for one of the camps and is a member of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. “The Kweese Trail where we know our ancestors died and were buried along that trail, they bulldozed.”
Last year’s demonstrations inspired supporters to join Wet’suwet’en protesters, but that ended as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. There are now just small groups at the camps that try to remain isolated to prevent the spread of the disease. “The pandemic hit and everything just shut right down,” Wickham says. “The only real way to get the word out was through social media and online actions.”
That’s why activists turned to Facebook in May to find another way to disrupt pipeline construction. Ninety-seven people RSVP’d to the event described as a “communications blockade” against Coastal GasLink investor KKR & Co Inc.
“I believe that it was obviously successful if people are trying to stop us from having any more actions on social media,” Wickham says.
Despite the suspensions, the activists are moving forward with their next “communications blockade,” which is rescheduled for September 28th. They’re still figuring out what online activism will look like moving forward, but Wickham says, “We’re not going to stop.”