"Stand with Standing Rock" protest in San Francisco. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

“Stand with Standing Rock” protest in San Francisco. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Dakota Access Pipeline has been the subject of fierce and continued protests in the United States during the past few months. The controversy, which started garnering significant media attention last September, has pitted business against environmental and cultural concerns.

Announced in June 2014, the pipeline is intended to be a 1,172 mile-long (1,886 km) underground oil pipeline project; it is designed to carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois every day.

Many people, including Native American tribes in North Dakota, have opposed the project from the beginning. The pipeline’s proposed Missouri River crossing is believed, by opponents, to endanger the tribe’s main source of water. The transport of oil in the United States and Canada has come under much scrutiny in recent years after several pipeline spills and oil train derailments, like the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Moreover, the Sioux Nations believe that the pipeline threatens their sacred burial grounds. Twenty-six archaeological sites are located in the area, Standing Rock’s Historic Preservation Officer LaDonna Brave Bull Allard has said. “It is a historic trading ground, a place held sacred not only by the Sioux Nations, but also the Arikara, the Mandan, and the Northern Cheyenne.”

In early 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux established a camp for cultural preservation and resistance to the pipeline. Thousands of opponents to the project gathered in the camp throughout the summer to protest the project, and by September the protest was attracting major media attention. Artists, activists, and many public figures showed up at the protests, and videos of conflicts between protesters and law enforcement have frequently gone viral, including episodes where water cannons were used on protesters in freezing weather.

Builders, however, claim that the project will not have any environmental impact on water, supported by a report from the US Army Corps of Engineers. The report confirmed that the pipeline will run 90 feet (27.4m) below the riverbed. Automatic shut-off valves on both sides of the river will add more protection to the river that already hosts several other fuel lines.

Growing media attention on the story prompted internet searches, some of which came to Wikipedia. Pageviews to the article on the pipeline spiked from 2,920 in September to 354,928 views in November—an almost 12,000% increase in pageviews. Pageviews to the protests article are examined more in depth by Wikipedian Pete Forsyth’s video on YouTube.

These people coming to learn more about it read an article crafted by volunteer Wikipedia editors. Whether supporters or opponents or just interested, Wikipedians have strived to provide neutral and factual coverage of the story, providing more information than people “would have learned elsewhere, like in single stories in the press,” Wikipedia editor SashiRolls told us. SashiRolls was inspired to contribute over 150 edits to the articles on the pipeline and pipeline protests after seeing some of this media coverage—after watching a TV news segment about it, he found out that “there have been good editors working on [the pipeline’s Wikipedia article] from more sides of the debate.”

“As Wikipedians, and especially in an era of fake news sites, we have a duty to Identify Reliable Sources,” one Wikipedian wrote on the talk page, linking to Wikipedia’s policy on determining what references are and are not suitable in article citations.

That policy is usually coupled with another on verifiability, which enshrines the idea that nearly all information added to Wikipedia needs to be supported with a citation to a reliable source.

SashiRolls was able to keep up with the developing story by “reading through” the verifiable information added to the two pages. Moreover, the page also helped him learn “about the Wikipedia project itself and how to edit relatively harmoniously on a charged subject.” There has been a significant amount of discussion on the article, with the article talk page and archives having over one hundred thousand bytes of discussion.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will look into an alternate route for the project and reassess the environmental impact of the pipeline on the area. Protesters in the Standing Rock camp celebrated the news but have continued to protest, as they question how and when this conflict will come to an end.

Samir Elsharbaty, Digital Content Intern
Wikimedia Foundation