Government Arrests Activist for Twitter, Army Warns that Vegetarians and Terrorists May Follow

by Will Potter on October 7, 2009

in Surveillance

Two activists have been arrested for using Twitter to communicate during the G20 protests, another step in the continued, escalating attack on First Amendment rights in the name of combating “extremism” and “terrorism.”

osama_twitterElliot Madison is a social worker and anarchist who was arrested in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24 and “charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime.” In plain English: police say he used Twitter to spread information about police movements during the G20 protests in order to help activists avoid arrest.

Madison worked with a group called the Tin Can Communications Collective to help activists communicate during the G20, creating a decentralized version of Twitter. Journalists from around the world, including CNN, subscribed to the service and viewed the messages posted. Madison told Democracy Now: “We put on the—about different trainings. There was a Know Your Rights training. We talked about the—there were messages I received about the raid on the Just Seeds food bus. There was information about where meet-ups were for different marches, like the students’ march. To be honest, I didn’t see most of the messages, because I was arrested very early on Thursday.”

The message in question that apparently led to the arrest was an announcement that said that the police had issued an order to disperse. The police allege that the message was intended to hinder arrests and prosecution (by that logic, the police making the announcement to arrest would also be an example of hindering arrests and prosecution).

Madison’s home was raided, and police took, among other things, Curious George stuffed animals and a needlepoint made by his wife’s grandmother of Lenin.

To put this in context, police have used sonic weapons during the G20 protests, they have beat and tear-gassed protesters and students and random people, they demanded that crowds of non-protesting passersby disperse or be attacked. These are many of the same tactics used during the DNC and RNC protests. [In this political context I, as a journalist, would sure as hell love to know where the police are, if nothing else so I don’t get beaten.]

Of course, the government is spinning the Twitter usage as a demon tool of anarchist organizers to incite violence. [Just as books are a demon tool of anarchists to, well, educate themselves]. We see this time and again at these mass protests–police beat random people in the streets while simultaneously trying to pick off certain individuals as “leaders.” During the RNC protests, organizers were arrested, demonized as “anarchists,” and hit with terrorism charges for spearheading local organizing with a wide-ranging coalition.

I ran across this article from last year, sent by a reader, about a U.S. Army intelligence report warning that terrorists may be using Twitter. An excerpt from the report:

“Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences,” the report said.

It goes on to say, “Extremist and terrorist use of Twitter could evolve over time to reflect tactics that are already evolving in use by hacktivists and activists…”

It would be laughable if it weren’t so prescient.

As Madison told Democracy Now:

“We’re not—we’re not the first. We’re the first in this country. During the Twitter revolution going on in Iran, in Moldova, in Guatemala, in the earlier newscast about Honduras, in all those cases, repressive governments have arrested folks for using Twitter. The only difference is, in all those cases the State Department, the US State Department, has condemned the arrest of these Twitter activists and had gone so far in the Iranian situation, the State Department, according to an article, asked Twitter to postpone its regular maintenance so as not to interfere with Iranian protesters to be able to send out their tweets. So the only difference is we’re the first arrested here.”

I’ve been wary of Twitter, but I’m slowly growing to love it. Sign up to follow me on Twitter and try it out. Because if the government is concerned about activists using Twitter… well, I think that’s reason enough to give it a shot.

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