The Fog of Twitter: Watching Last Night's Protest Arrests Through #OccupyBoston

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As I was headed to bed last night, I put down the strange little book on the intellectual history of the automaton I'd been reading, and checked Twitter on my phone one last time. It must have been something like 11 or 11:30pm. A Twitter acquaintance (and excellent writer), Geeta Dayal, tweeted, "At @Occupy_Boston. No place in the city I'd rather be! Hundreds of people joining hands behind police tape. #ows." What was going on? I saw a photo like this in a related tweet.

linked arms.jpg

There was no official media coverage of whatever was happening -- though that wasn't surprising, given that any reporter on the ground wouldn't have had time to file.* The real source of information was the #OccupyBoston hashtag.

But, boy, what a noisy signal. Hundreds of tweets were flowing through the hashtag, some old retweets, some new. The central node was the official camp handle @Occupy_Boston, but there were hundreds of other people tweeting at the same time. Slowly, I pieced together the story. Apparently, there were two camps -- the original in Dewey Square, and then a second to house overflow people. The Dewey camp was fine, but the second was approaching a confrontation with police.

Conflicting reports were everywhere. Who was on the ground? Who knew who was on the ground? Every interesting tweet forced you to go look at who had made it. Most of the feed seemed to be supporters or detractors with the bandwidth to the actual site limited.Some individuals seemed trustworthy, but it was impossible to tell. I found myself looking for reporters, figuring they at least were familiar with information-quality conventions and sourcing standards. Wesley Morris of Grantland and the Boston Globe was on the scene, I realized, tweeting observations. Reporting.

The information kept coming. There were cops in riot gear nearby. No, wait, the cops were in their cars but without riot gear. There were paddy wagons circling. A lot of them. Some police officers were coming from somewhere else maybe. No one is quite sure what's going on. "So a guy comes over a reports that the police in riot gear are on their way," Morris tweeted. "This looks like news to the Police." Were there police in riot gear on their way or not?

Another info ripple: media had been asked to leave the protest area. That seemed like a bad sign. But then Chandra Allard, who gave no clues to her identity, replied, "Fact checker Chandra here at #occupyboston - more members of press than cops. Asked police office no media was asked to leave camp!" Whether she was right at that time is unclear. Reports continued to circulate that media had been warned. Morris tweeted that a cop told him, "Once this starts, you're subject to arrest."

Literally thousands of tweets tagged with #occupyboston were going into the ether last night. Each minute of the confrontation seemed to take a long time. There was a kind of electricity even just to the Twitter feed. At the risk of minimizing the real danger to all involved, there was incredible, messy narrative suspense to the whole situation. Every partial answer to the question, "And then what happened?" forced you to ask again, "And then what happened?"

Between the occasional grainy Twitpics of police and protesters, it seemed that something was going to happen. People kept ominously mentioning a possible police "raid." Protest supporters kept tweeting that "the world was watching" -- and the livestream (which I wasn't watching) did apparently have thousands of viewers.

A few people in the deluge seemed to think the reports of a police raid on the camp were overblown. One in particular, who goes by the handle @buckbuckeroo, mocked the fears and preparations of the Occupy Boston protesters. "I'm assuming planes with napalm will be next on their radar. Or troops with flamethrowers...  Better watch out. Just saw a couple of drones fly over head. Followed by 50 F-16's, and 50,000 troops."

And it is undeniable that the confrontation with the police has added energy to the protest. Acts of civil disobedience thrive on attempts to make them obedient. It is part of the point to buck the authority of those in charge precisely because that's in miniature form what the protesters want to do at the macro scale. It is no small thing to face down police who want you to do something.

"If we are all arrested tonight, it will be the biggest mass arrest in Massachusetts since a huge 1968 Vietnam protest," @occupyboston. The message to the protesters was: we are in the middle of a world-historical moment. Like a fractured, distributed scene from Les Miserable, calls went out for people to head to the human ramparts and link arms. Veterans for Peace placed themselves intentionally between the line of protesters and the police. Everyone waited. Word went out cops had warned the protesters that they had five minutes to clear out. Morris, who had remained nonplussed, writes, "You have a 5 minutes, he says. Holy shit. They really are SWAT Officers." The seeming paranoia of the protest organizers suddenly seemed a little more real, but then again, maybe nothing would happen. All I could do was reload my browser. Maybe it was all overblown. Maybe -- 

A couple of minutes after 1:30am, the police -- geared up but sans helmets -- moved in. "They're coming after the press first. Walking us down Purchase to Congress. It's just turned scary. (And wrong.)" Morris tweeted. The cops hit the line of Veterans for Peace and as you can see in the video below, arrested them.^ They moved to the lines of protesters and began to arrest them, too. They made more than a hundred arrests and broke down the camp.

As I put down my phone and went to bed, I couldn't help reflecting on the tenuous grip we have on what real-time media means for our world. Media feedback will play into official actions faster and faster. Every single protest from here on out will be livestreamed and tweeted and photographed. People will be watching the chaos from afar.

We have known that on-the-ground activism coupled with online amplification could be powerful. Anyone who's seen NPR's Andy Carvin's curation of revolutionary tweets from the Middle East and north Africa knows how hard it is to figure out what's happening from 140-character bursts in real-time. But the Occupy protests are the first time we're seeing government-citizen confrontations on Twitter in all-English. The full glory of distributed leadership and communication are on display.

This is a very, very far cry from the streamlined protest narratives that we remember from the civil rights or anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s. As any historian knows, the actual events are nearly infinitely messier than the stories we tell about them, but that convenient elision is getting ever harder to maintain. From now on, we will record every blurt and cry from protesters, observers, supporters, and detractors. The medium will allow the people to be heard with an immediacy that can generate a ton of energy, at least more than white papers from think tanks or sociological treatises on inequality.

But even given the most coherent principles, real-time channels will tend to refract what's happening. If the problem of top-down charismatic leadership is that most voices don't get heard, the challenge for distributed leadership is coming up with a way to get harmony and focus.  

* Indeed, many news reports came out this morning.
^ Much has been made that the cops "beat" the Veterans, but I haven't seen video evidence of that. Tackled to the ground, yes. Beat? We don't know, but I haven't seen a video showing that kind of behavior.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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