Two separate Twitter accounts run by Wet’suwet’en land defenders were temporarily suspended without cause on Tuesday.
Gidimt’en and Unist'ot'en are two of five Wet’suwet’en clans, and are on the front lines of an ongoing dispute over the $6.6 billion (CAD) CoastalGaslink pipeline that cuts through the Indigenous nation’s unceded ancestral territory in northern British Columbia. They both lost access to their Twitter accounts—Unist'ot'en has been active since 2012 and Gidimt’en since 2019—temporarily this week.
Jennifer Wickham, a Gidimt’en spokesperson, said Twitter didn’t give any notice or reason for the shut down.
“There was no email or notification sent or anything like that…I know people have had their Facebook accounts frozen before, or have been locked out, but they get a notification,” Wickham said. “This seems totally random.”
Both accounts were active again as of Thursday morning and a Twitter spokesperson, Liz Kelley, told VICE News it’s a complete coincidence that the two related accounts were suspended. “These accounts were mistakenly caught in our automated spam systems,” Kelley said.
When asked why the algorithm flagged both pages, Kelley shared Twitter’s spam policy, which outlines violations—stolen identities, purchasing followers, overlapping accounts that highlight similar personas, and posting misleading links, to name a few—that result in account suspension. She said Twitter could have mistakenly detected any one of the offences in the document, but did not specify which offence may have led to the temporary loss of the Gidimt’en and Unist'ot'en pages.
The impact of losing access to social media accounts can be far-reaching for Indigenous communities, especially in remote regions where cell service or data is often limited.
“It’s something that we rely on pretty extensively to get information out about what's happening on the territory, in our situation,” Wickham said. “Our occupation and land defense is taking place in a really remote area, so we don't even necessarily have the luxury of live streaming… it's a quick way to get information to our supporters and mainstream media.”
Twitter has also allowed land defenders to share information about what's happening on the ground quickly, Wickham said. She added social media has made it possible for Wet’suwet’en to not only mobilize support in Canada, but internationally.
“We saw people following our page and commenting from all over North America and other places in the world, so it's really accessible,” Wickham said.
Since January 2019, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their supporters have mobilized against the CGL pipeline by occupying proposed development sites. They say they weren’t adequately consulted before the pipeline was approved, and cite risks to land, waterways, and Wet’suwet’en ways of life as urgent concerns associated with the development.
The ongoing push back against the CGL pipeline in Wet’suwet’en was arguably the largest news story in Canada in early 2020, even making international headlines. The RCMP, Canada’s federal police force, surveilled and raided Gidimt’en and Unist'ot'en in February, and arrested several people, and detained several journalists, including one reporting for VICE. Officers were (and continue to be) accused of using militarized force, and the events sparked a cascade of mass protests across the country. From coast-to-coast, Indigenous land defenders and allies set up blockades at railways and staged sit-ins at government buildings. Then, the pandemic hit.
Now, the fight to protect ancestral land is far from over for Wet’suwet’en, with CGL still pushing ahead with pipeline construction, despite calls from Indigenous communities to halt resource extraction while COVID-19 continues to pose a risk. Social media helps community members disseminate information, even when mainstream media isn’t paying attention, Wickham said.
This reliance Indigenous land defenders and activists have on social media is not new. Standing Rock in the U.S. and #IdleNoMore in Canada are two notable examples of wide-scale efforts that used Facebook and Twitter as tools to amplify Indigenous voices speaking out against ongoing environmental injustices. As US-based Indigenous journalist Jenni Monet wrote in 2018, “Delete Facebook? Not In Indian Country.”
Wickham said she doesn’t know why the Wet’suwet’en Twitter accounts were suspended, but noted that both were relatively inactive from the mid-July until this week, when a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief’s cabin burned down. Gidimt’en Checkpoint tweeted a 17-tweet thread on August 17 with details about the alleged arson. Another tweet from the same day critiqued ongoing religious colonialism in 2020. The Unist'ot'en account only retweeted the thread about the fire.
When Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Gisday'wa drove to his cabin on Saturday, all he found was ashes, according to CBC News. A local RCMP dispatch is investigating.
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