Whistleblower Chelsea Manning's Prison Twitter Account Is a Mystery

Illustration for article titled Whistleblower Chelsea Manning's Prison Twitter Account Is a Mystery

On April 3rd, 581 days after a military court sentenced her to 35 years in prison for leaking some 750,000 classified documents, Chelsea Manning burst back into the public eye with a new Twitter account. What the hell is she trying to do? We talked to the people running her account to find out.


Manning announced herself in early April with a carefree wave of a tweet, as if she was dashing off a text from a deli, instead of dictating the words over the phone from maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas:

Twitter users were quick to call bullshit, claiming it was more likely the words of a lonely troll than the musings of convict. Imposter accounts do pop up all the time. So in response to skeptics, Manning mailed a handwritten note from prison, which her account tweeted yesterday.

To recap a few more details about why Manning is locked up: While stationed in Iraq with the US military in 2010, Manning—then Private Bradley Manning—perpetrated one of the most significant public disclosures of classified information in history. The 250,000 diplomatic cables and 500,000 logs she dumped were published by Wikileaks and revealed troves of minute details about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The disclosure was hugely embarrassing for the United States military and intelligence agencies. Manning was busted and handed a 35-year term for espionage. Despite her official status as a traitor, she’s heralded as a political martyr by some, and whistleblower advocates contend the stiff punishment is excessive. There’s a movement to free her from what think is an unjustified prison sentence.


Given the gravity of Manning’s conviction, it’s understandable that Twitter users in the cubicles and Starbucks lines of Real Life were skeptical that Manning was tweeting from behind bars. There’s a long history of political prisoners communicating from jail, but usually they’re using pen and paper. Twitter is a bit different.

Though social media is strictly forbidden, Manning isn’t the first convict to get her words onto Twitter; a few years ago, murderer Jodi Arias got tweets out through a friend. Manning’s proxy Twitter tactics are similar to Arias’ though it’s more complicated. Her account is operated pro bono by DC-based FitzGibbon Media.


FitzGibbon is a fancy liberal media firm that works for clients like MoveOn and the AFL-CIO. But they’ve also taken on clients that can’t pay, and in particular, whistleblowers: WIkileaks and the Julian Assange Defense Fund are amongst their clients.

Company reps told me how it all works under the condition that I not quote them. Manning is permitted to talk to the phone with select individuals, and the firm’s founder Trevor FitzGibbon is on the list, along with friends, family, and her legal team. Every Tweet, I’m told, comes directly from Manning’s mouth and is posted exactly as she instructs.


The proxies are simply relaying her words and reading back replies from the public. Manning has extremely limited time, and the conditions are strictly regimented. Consider for a second the interaction behind the “=P” emoticon in her first tweet. Okay, so i want to do a face smiley with the tongue sticking out. Make sure you use the equals sign for the eyes instead of a colon.

So far, Manning’s tweets are mostly personal, and surprisingly casual:


We learn that Manning usually goes to bed between 9:30 and 10:30, and she’s usually up by 5:20. “My life operates on a scale of weeks, months, and years, not seconds, minutes, and hours,” she said one afternoon.

Her account tweeted out a Spotify playlist of songs she likes, and the selection feels hopelessly dated by the standards of Twitter’s constantly changing conversation. The freshest jam is probably Icona Pop’s 2012 hit “I Love it.” Manning hasn’t ever used Spotify herself, by the way. When she has radio privileges, she tunes into KMVX 93.3 Kansas City.


And, of course, she’s very grateful for the support from her followers.

So, why go through the effort to dictate tweets from prison just to post about Spotify and bedtime? FitzGibbon wouldn’t hazard what Manning hopes to accomplish by tweeting, but they noted that she’s broadly interested in issues of government transparency and accountability. Maybe she’ll eventually get to the issue, but she hasn’t quite yet.


And after a week of reading the mundane details of Manning’s incarceration, I’m starting to get it. The tedium of the routines imposed on her are foreign to readers, but routines themselves are something any average person understands. Her tweets read like the early words of everyone who wades onto Twitter and flails their way to a voice in the concise format.


The normalcy might just be subversive in and of itself. Manning’s voice hasn’t disappeared. The everyday boringness of her tweets springs from exceptional circumstances. It’s so much trouble for her to dash off thought fragments that you or I would tap out on the toilet between sighs. The powers she offended stripped her of freedom, but they can’t shut her up.


I guess the feds don’t police their prisoners’ indirect social media use as harshly as South Carolina does.

I’m pretty okay with this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with prisoners being permitted to interact with the outside world as long as it’s not being used to facilitate crimes (which really has nothing to do with the medium - the crime would be the message), and the prison can feel free to revoke her phone and mail privileges at any time, as they would for any other prisoner in the event of misbehavior.