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#NoDAPL and Online Activism: New Directions for Effectively Engaging With Critics

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The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline has sparked a broad, clamorous online debate about oil, the environment, and Native American sovereignty. Social media platforms such as Twitter are at the forefront of the changing dynamics of how such activism occurs. Our analysis of #NoDAPL tweets points to a communications gap between opponents and proponents of the pipeline. Closing that gap could provide a way for companies as well as individual professionals in the oil and gas industry to more effectively engage with critics and influencers in debates about energy issues.

Our research on Twitter activism related to energy development focused on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which started transporting crude oil from the Bakken in North Dakota on 1 June 2017, after an extended, high-profile debate that spilled from Twitter to influential print and television news media and to the halls of government. To recap, the construction of the pipeline came to a halt in December 2016 when the US Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement for the construction of the pipeline underneath Lake Oahe, several miles away from the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. The Corps was believed to be representing the desires of President Obama, who faced political pressure within his own party as a result of the widely publicized anti-DAPL activism that had started in spring 2016.

Our research shows that the pipeline opponents and proponents relied on strikingly different frames when communicating about the project (Smith and van Ierland 2018). For communications scholars, “frames” package and present information, thus encouraging certain interpretations while discouraging others. For example, news articles that cover the DAPL controversy by referring to the growing demand for petroleum products frame the pipeline as necessary for consumers and their standard of living. In contrast, news articles that cover DAPL by referencing a long string of pipeline leaks frame the pipeline as susceptible to failure and therefore a source of environmental risk.

In the sections below, we analyze the dominant frames used by key opponents and proponents of the pipeline on Twitter. Twitter played a central catalyzing role in the larger vociferous political debate about the pipeline, as the #NoDAPL hashtag came to represent the protests as a whole, adorning anti-pipeline banners and clothing. While the #NoDAPL hashtag generated millions of tweets, the more positive and neutral #DAPL hashtag never came even close to those numbers. Most of the supporters of the pipeline remained absent from the debate on Twitter, using a defensive mode when they did engage in the debate. This created a vacuum in which activists largely had the power to frame debates about energy issues.

Communication Strategies of Pipeline Opponents

We identified the most influential #NoDAPL tweets by selecting those that received a minimum of 1,500 retweets and/or likes. Drawing on prior research in communication studies, we then categorized each of those tweets by the framing strategy they used.

Table 1: Typology of Frames (Adapted from Nisbet 2009)

Frame

  Defines Science-Related Issue as…

Social Progress

A means of improving quality of life or solving problems. Offering a solution to an existing problem and therefore a societal improvement.

Economic Development

Market benefit or risk. The “economic argument” often used to convey a message of economic stimulus or discouragement.

Morality and Ethics

A matter of right or wrong; or of respect or disrespect for limits or boundaries. Appeal to values and principles of conduct, held by a specified person or group on Twitter.

Scientific Uncertainty

A matter of expert understanding, consensus, or peer-reviewed knowledge vs. alarmism. Questioning of science and expert understanding.

Pandora's Box

Warning in face of possible catastrophe and out-of-control consequences. Use of fatalistic messages to warn for alarming potential consequences, seen by some as scare tactics.

Public Accountability
 and Governance

Policy either in the public interest or serving special interests. Debate over transparency in decision making and whether an action is in the public interest.

Middle Way

A third way between conflicting or polarized views or options. A balanced, neutral message which avoids extremes.

Conflict and Strategy

Who is winning or losing the debate; or a game plan for battle. Call for action and strategy. Also used when declaring victory.  

 

Overall, we discovered that the most influential tweets employed framing strategies of conflict (41%) and morality and ethics (23%). When accounting for tweets that used two frames at one time, conflict appeared in 50% of the tweets and morality and ethics appeared in 34% of them.

Fig. 1—Most influential #NoDAPL frames. Source: Smith and van Ierland 2018.

 

One influential conflict frame tweet was sent out by @Sabreigha on 12 December 2016, after the US Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement to drill underneath Lake Oahe. The tweet was retweeted almost 60,000 times and more than 91,000 people liked the post:

The oil pipeline is being rerouted! Don't ever let them tell you your voice/protest doesn't matter #NoDAPL #DAPL

The majority of the opponents sent out tweets with #NoDAPL using the conflict frame, including one authored by prominent anti-fracking activist actor Mark Ruffalo on 23 January:

DAPL and #Keystone would be disastrous for the people and the environment. Let’s keep fighting brothers & sisters. #NoDAPL.

The morality and ethics frame was the second-most dominant in the tweets we collected. An example was sent out by @ShaunKing on 24 January:

The Dakota Access Pipeline must be stopped. It is immoral and unethical. I stand with Standing Rock. #NoDAPL.

Another example of a tweet demonstrating the morality frame was posted by @MisterPreda on 5 December, the day after the US Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement:

The Dakota Pipeline will no longer destroy precious land & water. Sending [heart symbol] to the beautiful Native Americans who stood & fought. #NoDAPL

Strikingly absent from these tweets were what communication scholars call the “middle way” frame, which is used to convey a neutral, balanced message, and the economic development frame. Either Twitter users did not use these frames, or those that did use these frames did not receive substantial amounts of retweets and likes, pointing to their lack of influence in how the debate unfolded online and offline. This indicates that the main influencers in the debate were mostly negative about the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Communication Strategies of Pipeline Proponents

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company in charge of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, remained conspicuously absent in the online debate on Twitter. It was only near the end of 2017 that the company created an official Twitter account: ETP first tweeted on 19 December 2017, 6 months after the Dakota Access Pipeline had been constructed and put into use and a year after #NoDAPL social media activism peaked. Their handle @ETPfacts signals the overall defensive tone of their Twitter account, and their tweets are dominated by announcements of the company’s philanthropy and news supporting oil and gas development.

During the debate, board members of ETP did give several interviews on television, but they failed to reframe the broader debate. During these interviews their main argument was that the pipeline would generate high-paid jobs, for example, when their CEO argued that “the employment is robust as a result of what we do” on 30 March 2017, on Fox Business.  This framing emphasizes economic development and was frequently used by proponents to defend the pipeline by underlining the economic stimulus the pipeline would bring to local communities.

This same frame of economic development characterized President Trump’s support of the pipeline, which he made clear during his campaign. In the first weeks after the start of his presidential term, he signed executive orders to advance the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline, allowing ETP to complete the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline underneath Lake Oahe. His main argument for the construction of both pipelines was the creation of thousands of jobs as pipeline workers. While signing the executive orders on 24 January, President Trump claimed that it was “a great day for American jobs (…) Today we take one more step putting the jobs, wages, and economic security of American citizens first”. Critics argued that the construction of the pipeline would indeed create thousands of jobs but that they would be temporary. 

Other prominent supporters of the pipeline, such as the Republicans in the US House of Representatives, similarly argued that the pipeline would add numerous jobs to the local economies along the projected trajectory, making the construction of the pipeline a local economic stimulus. The proponents of the pipeline emphasized the safety procedures and precautionary measurements that were taken for the construction of the pipeline, but only secondarily to their main argument of new jobs.

None of the influential #NoDAPL tweets used the economic development frame preferred by pipeline proponents. These tweets frame the pipeline in very different terms from the opponents, who framed the issue as a fundamentally ethical one rather than an economic one. To summarize, proponents and opponents of the pipeline largely spoke past one another in their own echo chambers rather than engaging the perspectives of others.

Implications

Oil and gas professionals and companies recognize the need to better engage the public. They have the unique opportunity to share their knowledge and amplify their information with a broad online audience on social media platforms such as Twitter. Yet, the almost exclusive focus on the economic development frame by the pipeline proponents fell on deaf ears of the pipeline opponents, who instead framed their criticism of the pipeline using frames of conflict and ethics. By remaining absent from the Twitter debate about the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, ETP missed out on the opportunity to provide clarifying information and to combat misconceptions that were circulating on Twitter about the pipeline.

Other research referenced below shows that embracing platforms such as Twitter and coming up with an online strategy can build trust and increase a company’s reputation. More training on the complexities and impacts of the use of social media when talking about the oil and gas industry would help to make those messages effective. Social media can help petroleum companies to share their messages and provide the online public with credible information, as long as they understand and engage the framing techniques used by the people they seek to reach. If pipeline proponents had engaged the frames of their opponents, could they have had a better chance to broaden how people outside of industry view the ethics of energy?

For further reading

M. C. Nisbet. 2009. “Framing Science: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement,” in Communicating Science: New Agendas in Science Communication, L. Kahlor and P. Stout, Eds. New York: Routledge.

Muralidharan, S. et al. 2011. “The Gulf Coast oil spill: Extending the theory of image restoration discourse to the realm of social media and beyond petroleum,” Public Relations Review 37 (3): 226–232.

Smith, J. and T. Van Ierland. 2018. “Framing Controversy on Social Media: #NoDAPL and the Debate about the Dakota Access Pipeline on Twitter.” Publication forthcoming in IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication.

Yin, J. et al. 2015. “Social Media and Multinational Corporations’ Corporate Social Responsibility in China: The Case of ConocoPhillips Oil Spill Incident.” IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication 58 (2): 135–153.

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the ConocoPhillips Center for a Sustainable WE2ST (Water-Energy Education, Science & Technology), which was established at the Colorado School of Mines to promote the joint sustainability of unconventional energy development and water resources in arid regions. The authors also acknowledge colleagues from WE2ST for their support and guidance throughout this study. ConocoPhillips does not direct the research or have access to the research data. Findings, opinions, and conclusions in this work are those of the authors and are not a statement or representation of the views, policies, or opinions of ConocoPhillips or its employees or representatives.


Tom van Ierland is a ConocoPhillips WE2ST Scholar at the Colorado School of Mines. He will graduate from Mines with a BS in petroleum engineering and an honors minor in Public Affairs in 2019. He is an SPE member and has worked as a petroleum production engineering intern for EOG Resources in the Powder River Basin and the Eagle Ford.


Jessica Smith is an anthropologist who studies the intersection of corporate social responsibility and engineering in the energy and mining industries. She is associate professor in the Engineering, Design & Society Division at the Colorado School of Mines, where she also leads the policy research in the ConocoPhillips Center for a Sustainable WE2ST.


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