How Your Twitter Account Could Land You in Jail
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Thursday, March 11, 2010 by Mother Jones
How Your Twitter Account Could Land You in Jail
Anything you tweet could be used against you.
by Matthew Power
On the afternoon of September 24, 2009, Pennsylvania State Troopers,
their guns drawn, broke down the door of room 238 of the CareFree Inn on
the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The troopers were acting on a search
warrant related to protests planned for the G20 summit-a meeting of the
heads of state of the world's major economies. Thousands of protesters
had descended on the city, presenting demands ranging from curbs on
carbon emissions to the outright abolition of capitalism.
Anticipating hordes of black-masked, Starbucks-smashing anarchists, the
Pittsburgh police and the Secret Service coordinated nearly 4,000 law
enforcement officers, outfitting them with the latest in riot-dispersal
technology. Crowds marching on the summit were met with pepper spray,
stun grenades, and-for the first time on US soil-acoustic cannons that
blast painful sounds as far as 1,000 feet. But the protesters had their
own crowd-control methods, and that's what had brought the state
troopers to the CareFree Inn.
What they found when they broke down the door were a couple of
middle-aged housemates from Queens, New York. Elliott Madison sat at a
desk with a laptop and a cell phone. A police scanner lay nearby.
Michael Wallschlaeger was at the minifridge grabbing some hummus when
the police rushed in. According to the criminal complaint filed against
them, the two men had been "communicating with various protestors, and
protest groups...[via] internet based communications, more commonly
known as 'Twitter'. The observed 'Twitter' communications were noted to
be relevant to the direction of the movement of the Protestors...in
order to avoid apprehension..."
Madison and Wallschlaeger were part of Tin Can Comms Collective, a
"collection of communication rebels" made up of several individuals in
various locations across Pittsburgh. Madison's job was to verify
information being sent in and then relay that to legal observers, street
medics, and other organizers who could in turn tweet the information to
the masses in the streets.
The raid occurred just as the protests were starting, but even as
Madison and Wallschlaeger were arrested, the information flowed from the
other tweeters without a blip. "A comms facility was raided, but we are
still fully operational please continue to submit reports" stated one
The real-time updates were available to anyone who followed the feed,
allowing protesters to see the theater of operations and add information
to the picture. It was as if the demonstrators had gotten their own
helicopter. Tin Can Comms sent out messages such as "SWAT teams rolling
down 5th Ave towards Schenley" and "40 cops, w/ bus, headed towards
friendship park." The police knew they were being outflanked, but could
do little against a decentralized foe: "SCANNER JUST SAID: BE ADVISED
WE'RE BEING MONITORED BY ANARCHISTS THROUGH SCANNER," noted one Tin Can
Madison and Wallschlaeger were charged with "criminal use of a
communication facility," "possessing instruments of crime," and
"hindering apprehension"-two felony counts and one misdemeanor.
With his long ponytail and goatee, Madison looks younger than his 42
years. A full-time social worker and self-proclaimed anarchist, he has
long played support roles in protest movements, most often as a legal
observer or a communications coordinator. He has no criminal record, but
nevertheless had to post $30,000 in bail. Wallschlaeger, a 46-year-old
host of a radio show called "This Week in Radical History," had to post
Madison calls the arrest an attempt to "stifle dissent" and says his
actions were "perfectly legal." His lawyer, Martin Stolar, calls them
"absolutely protected speech." Madison also points out the irony that
last June the State Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled
maintenance so as not to interrupt Iranian protesters tweeting from the
Tehran and Pittsburgh were not the first time social networking and mass
texts were used to support a large-scale protest: At the 2004 Republican
National Convention in New York City, thousands of protesters were
organized by a mass-messaging program called TXTmob. This proved the new
tools' usefulness to both activists and police, and they adjusted their
strategies accordingly. TXTmob is even credited as one of the programs
that inspired Twitter's inventors.
In Pittsburgh, the protesters' Twitter stream continued through the end
of the G20 summit, with noticeable results. By the time the tear gas
cleared, only around 190 arrests had been made, far fewer than at
previous protests in Seattle and New York. The media soon forgot about
the story-but for the two arrestees, an ordeal that Madison describes as
"Kafkaesque" was only beginning.
At around six in the morning a week after Madison and Wallschlaeger
posted bail, a dozen NYPD officers and FBI agents from the Joint
Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) broke down the front and back doors of
Madison's home in Queens. Guns drawn, they smashed in bedroom doors, and
Madison, Wallschlaeger, their housemates, and a guest were left
handcuffed on a couch. With helicopters circling overhead, agents
searched the house for 16 hours. "I asked to see the search warrant,"
says Madison, "and they basically said, 'Fuck you, you'll see it when we
give it to you.'"
Court records show the FBI seized hundreds of items, including
computers, hard drives, cameras, a World War I-era gas mask, "anarchy
books," even an antique needlepoint of Lenin made by Madison's wife's
grandmother. Several issues of Steampunk Magazine, where Madison writes
under the pen name Professor Calamity, were also seized, as was a guide
on poisons (which he says he uses in the writing of mystery novels), a
Mao Tse-tung refrigerator magnet, and several Buffy the Vampire Slayer
DVDs. A poster in the living room of anarchist philosopher Mikhail
Bakunin was left alone; "I guess they didn't know who he was," says
Madison. At one point a hazmat team in full protective gear was brought
in to investigate a jar of kombucha tea fermenting in the basement.
Madison claims a JTTF agent shook his head and said, "You guys are just
a bunch of hippies!"
The raid seemed to have an aimless quality. Madison was handed a ticket
for a packet of fireworks, and an agent who put his hand into a
suspected bag of marijuana discovered, painfully, that it was dried
stinging nettles, used in homeopathy. "It was almost as if they thought,
'If we take enough stuff, we'll find something to charge them with,'"
Madison says. When he was finally shown the cover sheet to the search
warrant, it provided for the seizure of any items "designed or intended
as a means of violating the federal rioting laws."
The federal anti-riot statute-18 USC §2101-makes it a felony to engage
in interstate travel to "organize, promote, encourage, participate in,
or carry on a riot." The statute is almost never invoked, but was used
to indict the Chicago 7 for their organizing activities during the 1968
Democratic National Convention. That case was ultimately appealed and
thrown out on other grounds, so the constitutionality of the anti-riot
statute has never been challenged in the Supreme Court. Critics have
long contended that it is vague, overbroad, and designed to suppress
protest activity and free expression. Applied in the current context,
"it starts to criminalize dissent, to conflate terrorism with
demonstrations, and that's a very, very dangerous notion," says lawyer
Stolar. "Essentially it's prosecution for a thought crime."
The fallout from the G20 protests has gotten curiouser and curiouser. In
an unexpected move, the Pittsburgh charges against Madison and
Wallschlaeger were summarily dismissed. A spokesman for the Allegheny
County district attorney said that the defendants' actions "may have
been related to more expansive activities" and "that until further
investigative activities by law enforcement agencies can be completed,
it would be more prudent to have the current charges withdrawn."
Whatever the JTTF was up to, in other words, would remain secret, along
with the sealed warrant that the Pennsylvania state troopers had used.
At around the same time, during an October hearing on the Queens raid, a
prosecutor revealed that a federal grand jury had been convened to
investigate protest activities. The affidavits containing the
allegations that convinced a judge to approve the search of Madison's
house also remain sealed.
Federal and grand juries are conducted in utter secrecy and have
enormous power. The old joke is that they can "indict a ham sandwich,"
but if they turn up nothing, they can disappear with no public
disclosure. Stolar doesn't know of anyone who has been summoned, but
given the course of events, "I would say they're looking to go after
what they consider to be hardcore demonstrators," he says. "I have very
little faith in government anyway," says Madison, "but this is something
I would have expected more under the Bush regime." A spokesman for the
US attorney for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment on
Madison and his housemates are trying to get on with their lives, not
knowing when, or if, the other shoe will drop. "Nothing could ever
happen and we'll never know why," says Madison, sitting in the living
room of his Queens home, the broken lock on the front door still
unrepaired. "We're anarchists," he adds, "but that's not illegal, and
it's actually a good thing. We're not ashamed of it. Part of the thing
with the government is to make you feel not only afraid but also
ashamed. That's just not going to work with me."
Matthew Power is a contributing editor at Harper's
New book: _Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon_:
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"