Will the Oil Sands’ growing Social Media Spill be Environmentalists’ Gain?
The Albertan Oil Sands’ rocky time with coverage generated by opponents like Neil Young, and Robert Redford, may be nothing compared to the social media coverage spilling from its workers on site. Can big oil use the tools availalbe to mop up the spill?
The media spill over the Albertan Oil Sands generated by Canadian rocker Neil Young, and Keystone XL naysayer Robert Redford, isn’t the only mess oil companies need to clean up. Social media coming out of the Oil Sands, or if you’re old school and haven’t taken to the rebranding — Tar Sands, tells an increasingly off message story. It’s a series of public updates that without intervention gives fuel to those who oppose the ecologically contentious extraction and processing of tar-like bitumen into oil.
Using EchoSec, a geospatial social media search platform, it’s easy for anyone and any organization to examine the social media coming out of the Fort McMurray area. What one sees is not the clean, safe development of a natural resource polished for public consumption by oil sands supporters. Instead, the raw social media stream posted by oil sands workers is unaccompanied by the traditional “clean and safe oil” government and corporate spin. Call the stream “social media bitumen” then, unrefined and un-messaged freely posted public information awaiting processing.
Many of these are not new images. The aerial views of sweeping tracts of devastation are nothing new, but social media offers a more intimate view of the oil sands.
For oil sands opposition digging through usual social media mix of selfies and over-tagged Instagrams, could yield valuable information.
For others this view provides insight into the muck, grime and labour of day to day work in the Fort McMurray area. There is a certain honour to it — it’s honest work done by people aiming to make their lives and those of their families better.
Where the record starts to stray from family friendly and safe oil is in the growing record of on site incidents.
Some updates could be construed as being sensitive to the security of oil sands operations, since as the contention over the Oil Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline grows, so does the probability of potential action against them on the part of more extreme eco-activist groups or individuals.
Such individuals are being handed a significant amount of identity information publicly posted online by workers in social media updates. Along with backtracking workers timelines this could handily facilitate the creation of access credentials. Or, in a more traditional criminal application this information could simply give identity thieves a running start.
In a very basic experiment, a partially obscured face pic from a workers Twitter account was searched for using Google Image and the worker’s username. The worker’s image was located in the top of the search results. Using Google’s ability to search for similar images effectively provided facial recognition, and yielded a full face shot, links to the worker’s FaceBook account, revealing the individuals full name allowing for the mining of other personal pages. Using open and available tools, it’s relatively trivial to establish the work patterns, routes, and background of some workers.
Beyond the security concerns social media pose, they also provide potential workers a particular sense of what working in the oil sands is like with companies like Suncore, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.or Syncrude at center stage. At the very least elements of the stream make recruitment more difficult. They also provide insight into on the job behaviour and safety concerns that could be construed as compromising the work and/or workers.
Workers of course need to be aware that social media doesn’t just let them voice thoughts on their employers, but lets potentially allows more technologically savvy employers look in on them. Even with the highly redacted EchoSec demo, oil companies, like Syncrude Canada Ltd. could be actively moving to mitigate work hazards, or outright avoidance of duties based on publicly posted information.
For oil companies social media represents the new panopticon. Those individuals and organizations concerned with the environment can easily look inwards on a stream of images revealing the industries dirtier moments. Workers themselves are proving to be unwitting watchmen within, providing the raw materials for those watching. The question is, will oil companies and those sympathetic to them be able to use the tools available to mop up the spill?
Note: All the social media content in this post was publicly posted and openly available. I’ve made my best effort to avoid identifying specific individuals in order to protect them from repercussions.