Disruptive Technology – Social Media At The RNC

Last year at this time things were quite different in the Twin Cities.  The Republican National Convention was in full swing and both Minneapolis and St. Paul were effectively under siege.  We all recall the thousands of local and imported delegates, protesters, riot cops, chartered buses, barricades, and journalists that transformed St. Paul into a political circus.  Activists had been flooding social media sites and the blogsphere for a year in advance organizing protests and recruiting people to join there causes.  During the week of the convention, these social media sites became a powerful tool for activists to out smart riot police and and broadcast their every move.

A few of my film maker friends set out to document the events and discovered some great information in the process.  At the time they regarded their findings as top secret as to maintain the flow of information from the activist underworld.  A year after these events occurred I think its safe to spill this can of beans.

While the thousands of peaceful protesters organized on the State Capitol lawn on September 1st, the Police were organizing to control the protest march that was about to take place.  Simultaneously many groups of protesters who’s intentions were to conduct civil disobedience and even rioting were putting their own plan into effect to carry out their missions.  One of the more active of activist groups was a local organization called the “RNC Welcoming Committee” who advocated less peaceful methods of protesting.  They divided the city into zones or “sectors” and delegated their radical protest duties to groups operating in each sector.  As seen in dozens of videos all over the internet,  these group of Anarchists and other anti-establishment protesters broke off from the march and raised havoc across the city.  Despite the presence of thousands of riot police form every part of the Midwest and beyond, these radical protesters successfully blocked traffic, harassed delegates, disabled delegates’ charter buses, and smashed windows on buildings and police cars.  How did they do it and where were the required back up of riot cops?

Activists use a Fox 9 report to claim victory over St. Paul’s police force in the aftermath of the RNC

A few weeks later the St. Paul police department admitted they had no control over the situation the first day of the convention.  In a Fox 9 report, the police site the problem being the two dispatch centers placed too close together.  What you didn’t hear from the police or press reports is that the protesters that broke off from the march had their own dispatch, a Twitter account called RNC08.

Twitter posts recieved via text messaging on 9-1-08 guided protesters.

Twitter posts recieved via text messaging on 9-1-08 guided protesters.

Many of the protesters set up Twitter accounts of their own and became “followers” of RNC08.  By enabling the cell phone feature and turning on SMS text updates for the RNC08 account, over 100 rioters received real-time updates of locations of roit police, the direction they were heading, and how strong in numbers.   The recipients of these tweets would pass the information on to the protesters in their immediate vicinity and forward these texts to other groups.   The owner of the RNC08 Twitter account collected information from rioters in the streets located all over downtown St. Paul.  Some of the tweets requested reinforcements where cops outnumbered rioters or locations where riot cops were using rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and tear gas.  The large platoons of riot cops moved slowly, in formation, and often were a step behind the smaller, faster, black clad rebels.  In many cases these groups had control of the streets with out a single cop in sight.  When the “regular” St. Paul police showed up to deal with the groups they were out numbered 40 to 1.  You tube videos immediately surfaced of these cops being surrounded, all efforts to enforce the law failing – they retreat to their patrol cars in a shower of chants and cheers from the rowdy mobs of hecklers.  Inevitably the protesters clashed with riot police resulting in 270 arrests.

In addition to peaceful protesting and violently disrupting the RNC, social media was used extensively to document and report the protesting and disrupting.  Largely ignored by the mainstream media, each day massive peaceful protests, marches, and concerts were held in St. Paul.  Independent and alternative journalists used blogs, You Tube, and MySpace to tell their stories.  Some of these journalists found themselves caught up in riots and were detained.  Others sole intent was to document arrests to ensure police were not violating the rights of protesters and journalists.  Some journalists and watch dog groups had concerns that their footage would be confiscated by police and therefore came up with a creative solution:  live streaming video from Blackberry and other smart phones.  Using the video sharing and streaming site Qik.  Qik provides apps for popular smart phones allowing users to stream live video to their Qik profile where the videos are also recorded and archived.  While the quality of cell phone videos is quite poor, the videos can still be used as evidence, ironically against cops and protesters alike.

A lot has changed in the social media world in the year since the RNC took place.   Twitter and Facebook have eclipsed MySpace and dozens of new sites are springing up every week.  There’s no doubt that activist groups, peaceful or not, will utilize any that serve their purpose.

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