How internet activism affects corporate reputation: Reflecting on the Dakota Access Pipeline

By Jeremy HollandContent Editor

Activism has reached a whole new level thanks to the Internet. This was well illustrated in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) which was officially opened last year and caused major Internet activism when it was first announced. The dispute over this major piece of infrastructure saw protestors leveraging social media to voice their opposition - to surprising effect.

Activists became angry about DAPL because of its location and environmental concerns. The pipeline crosses just outside the boundary of a Native American reservation that is in dispute, and over ancient burial grounds. Then there were worries that a spill from the pipeline could contaminate the water in a nearby reservation.

A fresh look at social media data shows that activist interest around the DAPL still poses a significant risk to reputation for corporations involved in the operation and financing of the pipeline.

Posts can spread quickly on social media

In the original case, provocative images of physical protests in North Dakota spread widely on social media and the press. Around the height of the protest, social media posts peaked at several hundred thousand, dwarfing web posts (including online news publications) which reached only about four thousand posts.

Polecat analysis found that the topic of divestment played a major role in social media discussions compared to web media. Divestment was (and still is) a key tactic used by protestors - targeting the financial backing of DAPL. Under their influence, the City of Seattle cancelled a contract with Wells Fargo, stating its involvement in DAPL as a contributing factor.

risk topics mentioned dakota access pipeline

Protest/Activism remains the driving risk topic on social media conversation around the DAPL (Polecat, 2018).

The pipeline was still built - and things have been relatively quiet on that front since. But, perhaps due to activist pressure, Energy Transfer Partners (the company behind DAPL) ended up going over-and-beyond federal safety regulations, meaning that the pipeline only lost 4 barrels of oil in its first six months of running. Indeed, activism and protests are still a top risk topic for DAPL, despite operating for over a year now.

Currently, there are three activist organizations that are driving the majority of discussion across social media and the online press. Earthworks is primarily concerned about U.S. Bancorp, which is echoed by Oil Change International. Meanwhile, the Indigenous Environmental Network is mostly focusing on Wells Fargo, with some discussion over U.S. Bancorp. Polecat data from recent months highlights how these organizations’ efforts are still holding sway over DAPL. Protest/activism remains a top risk topic across social media and online mentions.

financial services companies by activist organisations dakota access pipeline

Top financial companies mentioned on social media over the last 180 days in relation to activist organizations opposed to the DAPL (Polecat, 2018)

Internet activism across the world

Since the DAPL protests, there have been numerous other cases of Internet activism pressuring companies to divest from fossil fuels and the oil industry. Across the Atlantic, Two students at Cardiff University went on a hunger strike to pressure the institution to stop investing in fossil fuels. Using social media to spread their message, fellow students also fasted, signed petitions, and did demonstrations in solidarity. The University eventually vowed to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. is another example of Internet activism at work, this time targeting climate change. It pressured universities to divest from fossil fuel companies, altering the entire debate on climate change in the process. Because of their activism, the issue of climate change leapt from protestors to concern investors and insurance companies.

Monitoring Internet activism

With protests constantly happening on and offline, it’s not enough for organizations to rely solely on the news media to stay abreast of Internet activism. Situations rapidly develop on social media, and this is a notoriously difficult forum to monitor. However, new technologies that use data and advanced analytics can help companies to understand the scope and focus of Internet activism.

DAPL illustrates the difficult balancing act that the oil industry has - trying to appease the (sometimes conflicting) interests of many stakeholder groups. A compromise needs to be struck between investors and activists, while still meeting shareholder responsibility and wider CSR needs. The only way to achieve this difficult feat is if all parties are understood.

Using online and social media data will help organizations to develop reputation protection strategies and engagement campaigns that anticipate and address activists. In turn, this will better protect company and investor assets and lead to decisions that deliver long-term value and mitigate risk.