Oxford Dictionaries defines its official Word of the Year, post-truth, as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This month, we will briefly highlight each day a major moment from 2016 that most exemplifies the concept of post-truth. Many of these moments will, inevitably, pertain to our president-elect.
As 48.2% of the electorate spent the month of November mourning the prospects for the environment, their right to free speech, and their ability to express their beliefs without fear of violence from official state actors following the election of Donald Trump, the “water protectors” at Standing Rock who gathered to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline were already engaged in a struggle based around all of those things in the administration of his predecessor. The protests at Standing Rock, which began in April, took on an increased sense of urgency after November 8, though, and the “post-truths” began flying ever harder as the weather in North Dakota turned cold and authorities made a push to clear the protesters from the camp they established to demand that the pipeline not be routed through the Standing Rock Reservation.
The protests started after a proposed route for the Dakota Access Pipeline that ran near Bismarck, North Dakota, and crossed the Missouri River was rejected because it was close to residential areas and municipal water sources. It was re-routed by the Army Corps of Engineers to pass underneath the Missouri near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation–putting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s water supply at risk in the event of a spill. Those protests went largely under-reported in the spring and summer, but as fall approached, interest in the ongoing demonstrations grew.
As interest grew, though, so too did the difficulty in discerning what the truth actually was. People who turned to Facebook for information were unable to see live video of arrests, after the site blocked the URL to prevent it from being shared (Facebook blamed an automated spam filter). Supporters of the protest took to the site to check in at Standing Rock from all over the world in an attempt to confuse police who they believed were using Facebook to monitor who was on the ground at the camp. Getting accurate information out of Standing Rock proved to be difficult even for the most seasoned vets–journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! was arrested in September on riot charges (they were later dropped) after reporting from the scene, and at the time she went, none of the major U.S. news networks had sent a reporter of their own.
A lack of access to good information is a hallmark of the post-truth age: When we don’t know what’s going on, it’s easy for bad facts to fill the void. In the case of Standing Rock, that translated to a distinctly curious interpretation of the Morton County Sheriff Department’s use of pressurized water on protesters in late November. Medical personnel on the site who treated people who suffered injuries called the delivery devices water cannons, while Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said they were “fire hoses”–and said that the water was “sprayed more as a mist” in order to “make sure to use it as a measure to help keep everybody safe.” Seventeen of the people the department attempted to keep safe by spraying them with water in freezing temperatures were taken to the hospital for hypothermia, and others suffered wounds from concussion grenades during the same standoff–which the department says it did not use.
Regardless, the post-truth attempt to redefine the situation in Standing Rock took a surprising turn in early December, when the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to grant a permit to the project to proceed along the route near the site. The aftermath of that news remains to be seen–within 24 hours, Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics announced that they intended to proceed as planned regardless of the change from the Corps, which just means that there’s likely to be a lot more truth-sifting to be done around Standing Rock in 2017.