The photo was startling, showing teepees engulfed in flames with a caption condemning police for setting a Dakota Access protest camp on fire.
The only problem: It wasn’t true. Even as the image created an uproar Thursday on social media, websites such as Gizmodo and Snopes reported that the frame was taken from the 2007 HBO film “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
The picture, which appeared under the heading “International War Crime” on the left-wing Alternative Media Syndicate, also had been doctored. The original publicity shot included no snow or bales of hay, but as Gizmodo’s Matt Novak pointed out, the picture accompanying the Dakota Access story did.
“Even [though] there was strong militarized police presence on Wednesday which resulted in 76 water protectors arrested, the police did not set fire to the teepees,” Native News Online reported.
Into every political battle a little propaganda must fall, but those involved in the Dakota Access pipeline clash worry that the deluge of disinformation has gotten out of hand, inflaming pipeline foes and making the situation on the ground more perilous for protesters and law enforcement alike.
Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer of the Indigenous Environmental Network, cautioned pipeline foes against sharing the burning-teepee post, denouncing it as “fake news.”
“These are click-bait attempts to illicit a wild response. And that s—t makes it more dangerous for all parties in the #NoDAPL camp area,” Mr. Goldtooth said in a Thursday post on Facebook.
He cited two other examples of fakery making the rounds on social media: One report warns about poisonings in the protest camps. The other says that law enforcement officers have been told to shoot protesters on site, which he called “bull——.”
“Fact-check your [stuff] before you share it, relatives,” Mr. Goldtooth said. “Ask a few sources before posting.”
The National Sheriffs’ Association released Thursday a list of specious online posts associated with the protest over the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline since August, when thousands of protesters began descending on southern North Dakota in an effort to stop the project.
For example, a picture of a man’s back peppered with gruesome wounds, identified on the Olowaan Plain’s Facebook as a “water protector” who was shot with rubber bullets by police, turned out to be an image from a 2011 article on the website CrisisBoom.
Another photo, which appeared in September on the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, featured a girl with a gash under her eye beneath the headline “Dakota Access Pipeline Company Attacks Native Americans with Dogs and Pepper Spray.”
Security personnel hired by Energy Transfer Partners did use dogs to keep protesters at bay during a Sept. 3 skirmish at a private construction site, but the photo was lifted from a 2012 New York Daily News article about a girl attacked by a dog.
In one especially preposterous example, a GoFundMe crowdfunding plea posted Nov. 23 by Ben Howard featured a gruesome photo of a young man with a gouged eye under the caption “Peaceful protestor” and implied that he was injured at the “#NoDAPL Cannonball, ND Massacre.”
Unless the camps have been infested with zombies, that wasn’t the case: The image was taken from a publicity shot from AMC’s “The Walking Dead” featured in the February 2016 edition of The Hollywood Reporter.
The misinformation may not always be intentional. At a meeting last month with camp leaders, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council members said even they are often unaware of what is happening at the hard-to-reach protest sites.
It’s also fair to say that most people are unfamiliar with the remote tribe’s culture and customs.
MSNBC reporter Cal Perry reported recently that tribal members were worried about the risk of oil leaks from the pipeline that could interfere with the tribe’s ability to feed itself through buffalo hunts.
“The tribe here goes hunting for buffalo, and they tell me they go hunting north of the river,” Mr. Perry said. “Because the buffalo is so heavy, they kill it, and they float it down the river here to the camp, and that’s, of course, what they feed their families with. The question that was posed to me: ‘What happens when we float that buffalo down the river and the river is full of oil?’”
The report drew chuckles from the locals, given that the Standing Rock feed their families like most other Americans do: by going to the supermarket. On the reservation in Fort Yates is a grocery store called White Buffalo Super Valu.
North Dakota Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis told the Say Anything blog that he was unfamiliar with the practice of floating buffalo down the river. “I’ve never heard of that,” he said.
“Our tribe highly regulates our buffalo herd and hunts,” said Mr. Davis, a Standing Rock member. “As a tribal member, you’d be lucky if you got a tag or opportunity to harvest a buffalo. The only time we harvest buffalo is during our powwows or ceremonies. Special occasions only.”
Say Anything’s Rob Port previously posted a homemade video taken by a man who watched the segment being taped at the Oceti Sakowin camp, then informed the MSNBC crew that “the buffalo was sold off” and the report was “a lot romanticized.”
“It is what it is. We’re used to that, though. You need to understand we’re used to that kind of reporting,” said the man, who didn’t give his name but indicated that he was American Indian.
MSNBC did not immediately return a request for comment, but the media-clipping service TVEyes reported that the segment aired Jan. 26.
“When I originally posted the video, I couldn’t find where it had actually been broadcast. I thought that perhaps Perry, having been told that his report was inaccurate, decided not to use it,” Mr. Port said in the West Fargo Pioneer. “Turns out I was wrong. The utterly laughable segment really did air.”
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has attempted to set the record straight with a YouTube video series called “Know the Truth Morton Co.,” which features information on protest-related activity.