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Anarchists get the Twitter bug

Of all the places to be arrested, the Carefree Inn must be one of the more poignant. So it was for Elliot Madison, a 41-year-old from Queens, New York. On 24 September, the Pennsylvania State Police found Madison in the motel chain's Pittsburgh branch with his partner in alleged crime, Michael Wallschlaeger. The pair were in possession of all the paraphernalia for Hollywood blockbuster-style misadventure: radio scanners, laptops, maps, headphones. And Twitter.

Until now, tweeting has not been high on the list of homeland security concerns. But Madison had apparently been using the social networking site to spread news of police movements to protesters during the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh (or, in legalese, helping activists "avoid apprehension").
Madison, however, protests his innocence. "They arrested me for doing the same thing everybody else was doing [and] which was perfectly legal . . . It was crucial for people to have the information we were sending."

Either way, on 1 October, Madison's house in Jackson Heights was searched for 16 hours by a thunderous cloud of FBI agents gathering telephones, financial records, notebooks, gas masks and, among all the clobber, a picture of Lenin.

Madison, it seems, is not your average jump-on-the-bandwagon activist. A social worker by trade, he is a self-proclaimed anarchist in his spare time, a disciple of Marx. He is the intellectual protester - less brick-thrower, more philosopher-mastermind. His co-pilot, Wallschlaeger, produces a radio show: This Week in Radical History. But things have moved on a bit from Das Kapital. The soapbox is now virtual, the rallying cry condensed to 140 characters.

Poor old Twitter. Could the founders of the site - normally used by netheads to announce what they've had for lunch, or to opine on Dannii Minogue's nose - have foreseen a day when tweets became entangled in the dark arts of anti-capitalist fury? Twitter, that chirpy little bluebird, is now an unwitting accomplice in an alleged crime.

How the mighty have fallen. Or perhaps you like the idea of Elliot Madison tweeting away so that, cartoon-like, officers keep arriving to find empty streets as the last glimpse of a fleeing protester whisks round the corner, leaving only the echo of a triumphant cackle in his wake. In which case, hurrah for the tweeting anarchist

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush