Social Media Used to Update Public About Oil Spill

As oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico from the recent Deepwater Horizon disaster, a number of government agencies have banded together and utilized the power and scope of social media to disseminate accurate, up-to-date information to the general public.

On April 20, an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon, an oil-drilling rig approximately 52 miles off the coast of Venice, La., took the lives of 11 of its 126 crew members. The rig sank two days later, and oil—approximately 5,000 barrels day—began leaking into the Gulf from a broken pipe that had been connected to the rig about 5,000 feet below the surface.

As a way of providing a unified source of information, on April 22 the United States Coast Guard, Mineral Management Service (MMS), and BP, the oil company leasing the Deepwater Horizon, established a Joint Information Center (JIC) in New Orleans.

With the establishment of the JIC came the website And in what can be seen as a sign of the technological times and of things to come, the site has, since its launch on April 23, been using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Youtube to spread information about the spill and the efforts to contain it.

The JIC site is meeting the demands of a technologically adept society looking for updates as they break, explained JIC Social Media Specialist Stacey Knott. The days of waiting for the nightly news are over.

“Getting information to the public is what’s important,” Knott said. “If the public is using Facebook and Twitter, than it makes sense for us to use those channels to communicate.”

As of May 5, the Twitter page @Oil_Spill_2010 had 1,991 followers. The Youtube channel linked to the Deepwater Horizon Response page had 4,614 followers, 104 subscribers, and had been viewed 1,833 times.

The social media section on the JIC site include pictures and videos posted to Flickr and Youtube of Coast Guard rescues on the rig, and links to each state’s volunteer efforts.

Far from being just places to post casual observations of the incident, the public Facebook and Twitter conversations are helping steer how the JIC presents its up-to-the-minute findings.

Knott said she and others monitor the Facebook responses to each post and try to address questions or emerging issues quickly.

For example, some readers were confused about when certain events took place in the military response to the spill, and what steps would be taken in the coming days and weeks.

The JIC, she said, is in the process of creating an exact timeline on the site that would seek to mitigate those uncertainties, and also provide people with information about the spill’s containment as well as issues such as wildlife that has been contaminated.

“Being able to immediately clarify and talk with people is great,” said Knott, who also works as a Social Media Specialist for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command. “If people don’t understand something, we can immediately start a dialogue and help them understand.”

Another source of frustration amongst readers on Facebook and Twitter were uncertainties surrounding the objectivity of those behind the Deepwater Horizon Response site. Through the immediacy and ease of Facebook and Twitter, Knott has been able to explain the situation to users, many of whom, she said, are understandably upset, on edge, and suspicious of the facts presented on the site.

“There’s no spin,” said Knott, referring to a Facebook post that accused the JIC of working for BP. “People are sensitive, and we’re sensitive too.”

Where the JIC has succeeded, Knott contends, is in creating a forum that is not “speculative,” and is absent of any agenda.

The incorporation of social media in disaster response efforts has its roots in the 2008 earthquake in China and this January’s devastating quake in Haiti. Following the Haiti earthquake, Facebook and Twitter pages were created, but they were not linked to a joint site.

In contrast, the “single, unified” JCI page, with its links to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and Youtube, has streamlined the flow of information, and given users a central command center of their own.

Knott said she is confident that social media, in its immediacy and reach, will continue to play in integral role in the spread of news—especially in disasters such as this—in a groundbreaking manner never afforded to television broadcasts.