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The Twitter Revolution:
Free Bird or Jail Bird?

by Abby Martin (artwork by Antonio Bandeira)

According to a 2009 Pew Research Study, 63% of Americans polled no longer trust the mainstream media to convey the truth about critical issues and think the delivery of the news is either inaccurate or biased due to powerful corporate influences. As this skepticism grows, more people are turning to the Internet for their information. The Internet has served as the bastion of free speech since its inception and has provided a forum for common citizens to globally disseminate information.

If Sigmund Freud were alive today, he would probably say that increasingly popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter serve as the ultimate self projection of the ego, consisting of insignificant and superficial status updates of Joe blogger's mundane daily life.

However, the use of these sites has dramatically transformed the way our generation now communicates, most notably with Twitter's invention of "microblogging," a simple news feed confined to a 140 character limit. In the political arena, the utility of Twitter has undergone a complete metamorphosis from utter insignificance to explosive relevance in terms of maintaining free speech and addressing censorship and repression at home and abroad.

During the 2009 disputed presidential election in Iran, web savvy Iranians used Twitter to bring messages and photos from the streets of Tehran to the rest of the world. The Iranian government's ban on embedded journalism from "unauthorized" demonstrations within the country resulted in limited foreign news coverage and virtually no access to information during the unrest. Dubbed the "Green Revolution" by the media, news organizations from across the board began reporting on "tweets" coming out of Iran, praising the citizens for their bravery to get the truth out despite the government's attempts to censor the unfolding events.

The mainstream media and the American government encouraged this phenomenon and touted Twitter as a great outlet for advancing democracy and providing expository revelations in the face of government abuse and blatant censorship. As hundreds of people outside the country changed their location on Twitter to Tehran to show solidarity with the protestors, the media proceeded to irresponsibly report on potentially sensationalized "tweets" without discerning their legitimacy. The State Department even went as far as asking Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance to their site in order to avoid disturbing the communication flow between Iranian citizens as they demonstrated on the streets.

Three months later at September's G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the hypocrisy of the American government's perceived support for democratic activism is exposed.

The global group of finance ministers, central bank governors, the heads of the IMF and the World Bank, and representatives from giant corporations were meeting to discuss international economic policy and cooperation amidst our economic downturn. Talking heads on television began describing the G-20 as the beginning of a New World Order of financial co-operation and monetary development.

During the week of the summit, mainstream headlines focused on anarchist protestors disrupting the peace and causing widespread destruction around Pittsburgh, forcing the police to react. However, thousands of citizens' reports on the ground told a different narrative. Although some protestors were instigating violence, the vast majority present consisted of thousands of concerned citizens who were participating in the nonviolent People's March, which was organized as "a demand for solutions to the planet's economic and environmental challenges that differ than those the world's richest countries are pursuing". Thousands were peacefully demonstrating against the subjugation of the rest of the world by the G-20 participatory governments and the recent US corporate bailouts at the expense of the American taxpayers.

Throughout the summit, Youtube videos went viral showing appalling footage of unabashed violations of personal liberty and free speech at the hands of the police and military. Some of the footage included riot police uniformly closing in on peaceful demonstrators and performing sweeping arrests; the unprovoked and continuous usage of sound weapons and tear gas; a police officer beating an unarmed woman with a baton; and the shooting of demonstrators with rubber bullets and bean bags. In one instance, numerous canisters of tear gas were thrown into a dorm floor at the University of Pittsburgh, trapping an entire group of college students in a poisonous cloud while they tried to enter their rooms.

Elliot Madison, a social worker and member of the Tin Can Communications Collective from New York, was arrested and his hotel raided by the police on the first day of the summit for using Twitter to inform others about police dispersal. He also had been utilizing message boards to give legal advice and "know your rights" training to fellow Tin Can members.

He was officially charged with "hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of communication facility, and possession of instruments of crime." All he had done was pull information about police whereabouts from a public domain police scanner, and used it to warn others via Twitter.

One week later, armed FBI agents stormed and raided his home while he was asleep. The agents proceeded to conduct a sixteen hour search and seizure of his and other household residents' clothing, books, writings, computers, cell phones, posters and dolls of the monkey Curious George, and other personal items including a cherished Lenin needlepoint picture given to Elliot by his grandmother. They kept Elliot, his wife and their roommates in handcuffs and refused to show them the complete warrant that authorized their actions.

Martin Stolar, Elliot's attorney, gave an interview with his client on Democracy Now where he breaks down the charges against Elliot.

"[The twitter feed] turns into a crime of hindering prosecution. The communication facility then, the cell phone or the computer that was used to post that message, becomes an instrument of the crime, and the use of that mass communication facility becomes, they claim under Pennsylvania law, a third crime."

He continues to elaborate on the unconstitutionality and illogicality of the criminalization of lawful communication and activity .

"The First Amendment protects free speech, and it protects protest activity. And what Elliot and his co-defendant are accused of doing tends to support free speech and protest activity itself. It is speech that goes out. Putting something up on Twitter is a form of speech. And we have some serious First Amendment problems in connection with the prosecution in Pennsylvania."

The G-20 protests illustrate an emerging revolution of thought and ideals transpiring in America, yet this revolution is being concealed both by the government and corporate media. The fact that the media and State Department congratulated the use of Twitter during Iran's "Green Revolution" yet have actively sought to suppress and prosecute activists' usage of online viral activism in our own country sheds light on a glaring hypocrisy that calls into question the legitimacy of democracy in the United States.

As the US government continues to incite wars of aggression using the rhetoric of spreading "democracy" abroad in the Middle East, the citizens of this country must critically examine the doublespeak of this government as it increasingly represses citizens' free speech and civil liberties at home.

The renaissance of grassroots citizen journalism around the world is flourishing. People are now acting and reporting on the news that is happening around them thanks to cell phone cameras and videos. Twitter now serves as one of the forefronts of the battle for information in this world, its little blue "tweeting" bird becoming an unintended symbol of free speech and liberty as the fight for human rights continues. nth.

Abby Martin is an artist, freelance writer, and activist from the Bay Area. Over the past three years a variety of different venues in San Diego have exhibited her paintings. The most current display of her artwork is at Pangaea Outpost and the Cirello gallery on Ray Street. She looks forward to exploring and connecting with the Bay Area art scene following a move there at the end of 2009. She can be found online at www.abbymartin.org and www.youtube.com/AbbyMediaRoots

Artwork "Caged Bird" by Antonio Bandeira. Check his work at Flickr.