Ladd Erickson: Social Media and the Human Race: A DAPL Protest Postscript


TOM STROMME/Tribune An aerial view of the main protest camp on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land at the confluence of the Missouri River and Cannonball River in southern Morton County North Dakota on February 13, 2017. The area is in a flood plain and must be clear of buildings and people who have been illegally camping to protest the nearby Dakota Access Pipeline. This view shows the camp's main entrance road at left with cluster of tents in lower center being the camp headquarters.

This guest post was submitted by McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson.

Oil pipeline protests are a possibility in Minnesota and South Dakota this summer.  I helped Morton County prosecute DAPL cases and thought better about posting about it at the time.   I no longer have that constraint, and will example how social media fueled the DAPL protests because those same protestor tactics will be repeated elsewhere.

The brilliance of the DAPL social media was in messaging national policymakers more effectively than if the protestors were gathered outside the White House.   At the same time, their Internet audience wasn’t enduring months of blocked roads, killed livestock, riots, burnt equipment, violence, and the daily protest fatigue that set in here.   The globe watched a heroic struggle on their computers, while North Dakotans lived through a protracted siege.

Facebook opposition to DAPL began in April 2016 and seemed to motivate tribal elected officials to belatedly oppose the pipeline after ignoring the lengthy state and federal pipeline permitting processes.  That indifference influenced the judge that denied the tribe’s injunction application.   Regardless of this tribal failure, an oil corporation’s pipeline being built next to an Indian reservation became an irresistible backdrop image for celebrities and other activists to pegboard national Indian Country, environmental, class, race, and political issues to during an election year.

In furtherance, what made DAPL social media potent is why it can be generally potent: no editorial, journalistic, ethical, or moral standards – but on the surface, it still looked like reporting.  Until recently, people didn’t realize some of the stories pervading the Internet during the DAPL protest were portioned by Russians sowing discord, at the same time and way they were influencing our last national election.

Masqueraded DAPL social media reporting was skillfully displayed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now (DN) when she put a 7:46 minute dramatization of a two hour protest event online.
At the time, the tribe’s injunction petition was pending in a federal court in Washington, D.C., and the protestors were being advised by their public relations firm that D.C. policymakers were their primary target.

In the offline world, when a couple hundred people break down a fence, enter private land, chuck rocks at construction workers, strike a worker in the head with a metal fence post, and knock a security guard off a bridge with a horse while workers are retreating about a half mile to get to vehicles for an escape – those people are attacking.

Case studying the DN video with your sound off will show how the factual opposite of what occurred was produced.   At 3:07 there’s a purported dog bite on a man’s arm. Then at 3:22 – 3:28 a close up of a dog’s bloody face is supposed to represent protestor blood.   What’s cut out of the sequence is a woman who took a log and smashed it on the dog’s head. (The DN crew was standing near when that happened but the social media pictures of it and the worker getting struck on the head with a fence post have been removed.)  However, if you look at that dog at those times you can see the blood is coming from its nose and getting on its tongue. A veterinarian later confirmed the dog’s blunt force head injury.   At 3:54 you can see what some of the workers described to the police as theDN crew staging protestors to provoke the security guards’ dogs for their story.

Again, with the sound off, who’s attacking whom? Finally, at 4:36 you’ll see the last of the retreating workers getting in their vehicles.

Now play the video with the sound on to get Goodman’s plotline and emotions narrated to go viral. DN credited their clip for getting President Obama to halt the DAPL project – a halt that mushroomed the protest camps and besieged us for months of similar contrived theater.  If the President of the United States can be fooled by social media sorcery, it’s no wonder the Russians have found an American fragility to exploit.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]That riot got people hurt, and could have gotten someone killed. If Goodman’s clip was “journalism,” so was Pulp Fiction.[/mks_pullquote]

In the online world the riot was justified as necessary to protect ancestral remains.   Where facts matter, as in federal court, it was proven that DAPL was routed alongside an existing gas pipeline excavated into the same ground DAPL was being placed, and with all the archeology done on the path to identify and avoid any burial grounds or sacred sites.  In fact, time and again the archelogy in the Cannonball River drainage has been studied.   The Corps of Engineers choose the Lake Oahe crossing to avoid sacred sites; reduce overall water crossings; and distance DAPL from water intakes – the tribes being 70 miles downstream.

Social media pegged the Lake Oahe DAPL crossing site as racism in America, despite Snopes debunking the invective that “racists in mostly white Bismarck” objected to DAPL being upstream from them.  Fact check: There are five major oil pipelines under the Missouri River system in North Dakota upstream from Bismarck and another that delivers oil to the Mandan Refinery proximate to the water intakes for both cities.  A finished oil products pipeline exits the refinery and goes under the Missouri River, again by the water intakes.

Sound off or on, the DN video showed a riot, and when I began helping Morton County prosecute DAPL cases, I thought Goodman should be charged as a rioter.   The evidence showed me she was on private property; her own video shows a private fence being taken down which clues anyone to what’s happening is criminal; if you listen to her yelling at the guards she was certainly enhancing the mayhem they experienced in becoming her unwitting “props” of corporate evil.   For reasons unknown, a judge wouldn’t sign the charges against her and others that had been identified in videos. After that, I was informed via Madisonian tutorials from Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone and some guy who found me unfit for office from The Washington Post that Goodman’s outdoor theater was “journalism.”

Apparently when a New York author of instruction books in “Resistance,” “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” “Exposing Oily Politicians,” … embeds with a “resistance“ at a remote pipeline construction site in rural North Dakota, with no media clued to the events, and at the precise time project decisions are pending in Washington, D.C. – she just happened across a story that “broke the sound barrier” around the President and Attorney General.  That riot got people hurt, and could have gotten someone killed. If Goodman’s clip was “journalism,” so was Pulp Fiction.

“Police Attack Unarmed Water Protectors w/Rubber Bullets, Tear Gas, and Water Cannons; 300+ injured,” is how Unicorn Riot titled their online footage from the Backwater Bridge on November 20, 2016. What their footage actually shows is the police were blocked from attacking anyone by concrete barriers and razor wire.   That night a horde equipped with gas masks, body shields, slingshots, rocks, and lug nuts amassed toward our officers. When tear gas and rubber bullets failed to stem their advance, officers brought up firetrucks to keep protestors at bay.   This 2:20 minute drone footage aerially depicts the scene on the bridge that night.  At 1:50 you can see the wire bridging metal sheets protestors used to breach the razor wire to get at our officers.   In the aftermath, Bull Connor similes about using fire hoses in cold weather on ersatz prayerful people frenzied the Web.

The Huffington Post titled their story about events on the bridge as: “On Thanksgiving Week, Native Americans Are Being Tear-Gassed in North Dakota,” but they were far from the only national media with no compass during the DAPL protests.  MSNBC reported from the camps that Indians used the river to float buffalo down after they shot them.  No kidding.  To MSNBC: Dances With Wolves was a movie, and set in the 1860’s.   Indians butcher buffalo and steers like I do when I need meat: lift them with a frontend loader and cut them up.  Why drag them into the river? Whoever told that reporter that story has to be a huge fan of Monty Python’s French Taunt.

What is journalism and who are journalists are lingering DAPL protest questions.  You would think in the era of flash-mobs and protestors trained to stunt mayhem for social media that people lettered in this area would be writing criminal charging guidance for prosecutors, police, judges, and the profession of journalism?   I could find none, even after inquiring about such guidance with a professor from the Columbia Journalism School that had called me to talk about the Goodman case.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Police and prosecutors don’t want to decide who is a journalist, or not, when determining whether charging discretion should be used.[/mks_pullquote]

Police and prosecutors don’t want to decide who is a journalist, or not, when determining whether charging discretion should be used.  Nor is basing charging discretion on content workable because then the government indirectly controls speech. Considering who is a journalist is particularly difficult during riot and failure to disperse charging considerations because those scenes involve people committing violence or mayhem, and others going along with the crowd.

For DAPL type protests, things get thorny because the primary motive behind DAPL “direct actions” was to get protestor aligned cinematographers positioned for police reaction close ups as officers made arrests or secured scenes.  Fact or traditional reporters who might get swept up with a mob are actually a threat to the protestors because they can’t control their narratives, and for them, social media has supplanted their usefulness at protest scenes. In other words, mayhem and trespassing now have unfiltered lines to GoFundMe accounts.  It was reported that $40 million was raised online in support of the DAPL protests.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, deciding who gets journalist charging discretion can’t be left to the person claiming that either because then Charles Manson could have livestreamed his Tate/LaBianca murders and been just a journalist.   During the DAPL protests, numerous arrestees claimed to be journalists because they had cell phone cameras and Facebook pages.

At one point, Morton County State’s Attorney Allen Koppy received this scud missile from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).  Without considering any facts from the scene, CPJ lumped Facebookers (Myron Dewey) and protest marketers (Unicorn Riot) into an all-encompassing “journalist” corral – which is frothed in anarchy and hypocrisy.  For example, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russians for using social media to place fake news stories among the voters, as the New York Times lead their story:

“Operating from St. Petersburg, they churned out falsehoods on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. They promoted Donald J. Trump and denigrated Hillary Clinton. They stole the identities of American citizens. They organized political rallies in several states, and hired a Clinton impersonator for one event, in West Palm Beach, Fla.” …

I searched the CPJ website for mention of Robert Mueller indicting these Russian “journalists” and found nothing.   Why direct indignation toward DAPL prosecutors, when another prosecutor charges people (who weren’t trespassing or with a rioting mob) for using social media to spread false stories and he receives no on-high scolding?

CPJ’s letter to Al Koppy exposes a fundamental problem within the profession of journalism:  Although social media is devoid of journalistic standards, anyone who posts content on the Internet is considered a journalist by the profession, which makes everyone a journalist, thus there’s no profession – just people landing their agendas on society under the guise of reporting.

Given the morass, a person embedded with trespassers or rioters to video police reactions should be charged the same as the other protestors.  If arrests are made, seizures of equipment for evidence review is warranted. First principles first: protection of people and property. And, importantly, law enforcement actions need to demonstrate to citizens they need not be vigilantes, which was especially critical during the months of local resentment DAPL protestor antics created.  Exasperations by media sources about arrests of purported journalists are distant secondary considerations, which is why they were ignored by law enforcement and prosecutors during DAPL.

Some protestors tried to get a couple more puffs out of the DAPL cigar butt when, toned like grizzled Khe Sanh veterans, they circled campuses eulogizing the protests for YouTube consumption.
The script didn’t change: “The white racists of Bismarck had DAPL moved where it would destroy sacred human remains, and when we all came to pray about it, dogs and militarized police attacked everyone….Here are some GoFundMe accounts setup to help us fight on.”

In Colorado, a lawyer from the camps told the audience: “They had this arrogant special prosecutor named Ladd Erickson who got judges to order water protectors to pay for their court-appointed attorneys after he convicted them.”    My response to her………Okay, she nailed that one.  If you want to nail modern protest social media, just meme the etching in your car mirror:  Objects on your computer screen are the opposite from what they appear.