Instagram as Public Pedagogy: Online Activism and the Trans Mountain Pipeline

12 Min Read

January 30, 2024

Carrie Karsgaard is an Assistant Professor in the Education Department at Cape Breton University, teaching in Sustainability, Creativity, and Innovation. Her recent book, Instagram as Public Pedagogy: Online Activism and the Trans Mountain Pipeline, uses digital methods to explore the educative force of social media in anti-pipeline activism.

It was early in my doctoral studies when Instagram activism first caught my attention and spurred the research behind Instagram as Public Pedagogy: Online Activism and the Trans Mountain Pipeline. At the time, the Trans Mountain pipeline extension (TMX) was front-page news. Set to cross roughly 1,150 kilometers of grasslands, mountainous forests, freshwater systems, coastal rainforests, and marine ecosystems, the TMX was mired in controversy. As a British Columbia (BC) resident, I swiped through protest imagery on my news apps that highlighted the Tsleil-Waututh occupying Burnaby Mountain with their allies and leading thousands of supporters through the streets of Vancouver. Via Canadian media outlets like Global, CBC, and CTV, I viewed BC Premier John Horgan making statements opposing federal government pro-pipeline decisions and scoffing at Alberta’s ban on BC wine. 

Then, as I travelled to the neighboring province of Alberta for university, my news apps updated with local reports dominated by images of Premier Rachel Notley poised beside Canadian flags, gesturing towards graphs depicting the economic benefits of Alberta’s oil industry. Driving through Syilx territory in the Okanagan, where I lived, I passed by pro-pipeline billboards paid for by the Government of Alberta that declared the pipeline’s benefits to “all Canadians,” despite how just north of us, Secwepemc members of the Tiny House Warriors were actively blockading construction by occupying small homes built along the pipeline route at Blue River.

Becoming interested in how such conflictual mainstream media messaging interacted with the public, I turned to social media to learn more. I started following TMX-related hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, thinking about social media as a kind of public pedagogy. 

One of the first anti-pipeline posts I saw online used hashtags to link the pipeline with both #climatechange and #mmiw, or missing and murdered Indigenous women. On the one hand, as a fossil fuel infrastructure, the TMX contradicted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s declared climate emergency by contributing to carbon emissions and providing yet one more reason not to push forward with energy transition. At the same time, the pipeline’s construction required the import of predominantly male transient workers into rural and Indigenous communities, like the Secwepemc community at Blue River, which have seen a subsequent rise in violence so profound that a national inquiry was called. These powerful connections between climate and gendered violence were made through the simple affordance of the Instagram hashtag–#climatechange and #mmiw–yet they potently addressed two Canadian policy arenas of climate governance and Indigenous relations in tandem, in keeping with critiques of Indigenous dispossession for the purposes of colonial extraction. Though simple, these hashtags spoke volumes.

Despite these powerful connections, I wondered to what extent such nuanced activism was legible within mainstream environmentalism surrounding the TMX. In other words, would an anti-pipeline activist seeking to protect oceanic landscapes and endangered orcas–or advocating for a green transition away from oil–understand the anti-colonial connections in the #climatechange #mmiw post? Mainstream environmentalism has a history of depoliticizing the environment through romantic ideologies that separate nature from human culture. Environmentalism tends to position certain humans as caretakers for what is construed as a pristine, unpeopled, and unspoiled ideal that systematically excludes Indigenous peoples, as well as immigrants and people of color. In this context, would #mmiw be seen by the mainstream as necessary to environmentalism or climate action? 

Particularly as Canada is committed to confronting its colonial history by responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and addressing colonial violences such as MMIW, making sense of the contours of ideas and related issues in TMX public pedagogy seemed crucial to rebuilding more just relations among Indigenous and various settler peoples, including through environmentalism and environmental education. 

To this end, Instagram as Public Pedagogy draws on Instagram’s large-scale data to countermap anti-pipeline resistance (e.g. Figure 1), revealing key anti-colonial alignments and spaces of restriction where mainstream environmentalism persists, such as local protectionism and techno-scientific climate solutionism. The powerful public pedagogies emerging over Instagram present visions and enactments of a future beyond extractivism and white supremacy, performing alternatives to a colonial order by expressing interconnections with land, solidarities across sites similarly structured by the settler state, and ongoing relations with peoples and lands that transcend colonial borders.

Figure 1: By multiplying maps of Instagram posts, we can see various patterns in how the issue takes life online. This graph works with the top 100 most-liked posts tagged #stoptmx (for “stop the Trans Mountain extension”), mapping the associations between these images and the hashtags used with them. Other maps focus on location tags, hashtags, and emojis.

While my investigation is thus centred on the issue of the TMX, Instagram as Public Pedagogy also explores the ways that Instagram itself factors into anti-pipeline public pedagogies. After all, Instagram is a platform designed for capital gain through data extraction, promoting specific platform cultures and representational regimes, and dictating which content is visible, ultimately enabling and circumscribing the public pedagogies that emerge. The hashtags described above hold potential to spell out the pipeline issue, but they are also problematically subject to platform monitoring and algorithmic functioning, as we saw when posts tagged #mmiw were removed from Instagram on Red Dress Day, a National Day of MMIW Awareness, purportedly due to a technical glitch. So, while hashtags crucially promote action through networking and solidarity, and they index and aggregate personal experiences in relation to broader structural issues, they are also a mechanism of platform algorithmic promotion and control.

Of course, hashtags are only one element of Instagram, and significant political work is enacted through the aesthetic nature of the platform’s public pedagogy. The infamous spectacularity and shininess of Instagram perpetuate coloniality, for example through pristine wilderness imagery associated with the province of British Columbia (Figure 2) and exotified depictions of Indigenous land protectors that are more likely to go viral. At the same time, resistant aesthetics appropriate and subvert both platform vernacular and colonial representational regimes in complex ways to challenge and even refuse the colonial visuality that perpetuates extractivism. For example, Secwepemc Tiny House Warriors at Blue River (Figure 3) depict women on the land through casual selfies and by sharing everyday shifts in the weather at the blockade, appropriating the platform for their own self- and land-representation. Where quotidian aesthetics refuse spectacularity in this way, Instagram updates can destabilize the physical enclosure and exploitation of land and bodies under colonialism.

Figure 2: Stack of the top 10 most liked images location-tagged “British Columbia.”
Figure 3: Stack of the top 10 most liked images location-tagged “Blue River.”

Archiving, tracing, and visualizing the contours of the Trans Mountain pipeline public pedagogy enables the contribution of public voice to a growing body of research and activist work towards anti-colonial environmental and climate justice. By interrogating the role of Instagram in this pedagogy–including the complex interaction of activist agencies with smartphones, platforms, algorithms, minerals, misinformation, and surveillant bodies–we can better understand our possibilities for online activism and learning, but also our potential restrictions. Lately, in the face of Meta bans on national news and the overwhelming consumption of water and energy by AI, I have been thinking even further about how we might reconsider the use of social media for activism, along with our potential need to develop low-carbon platforms and media systems that are driven not by corporate models but community aims, towards the undoing of extractivism. In other words, I have begun to wonder how Instagram’s public pedagogy might help us collectively imagine – in order to create – better relations among land, peoples, and technologies.

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