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

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.

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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."

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