When Kahookahi Kanuha came up with the hashtag #TMTshutdown, he had no idea how far it would spread.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the hashtag has been used in more than 12,000 photos and videos on Instagram alone. It also peppers Facebook and Twitter statuses calling for a stop to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, a mountain on the east side of Hawaii Island that many Native Hawaiians revere as sacred.

It’s a distinctly 21st century way of defending age-old traditions, and TMT opponents delighted in the money and support that’s come from gaining worldwide attention. It’s become trendy to oppose the project, which has been portrayed as a symbol of colonialism and disrespect to Native Hawaiians.

TMT launched its own online campaign Monday, but it seems to be off to a slow start as it seeks to respond to the most widespread concerns and debunk misconceptions about the project.

On Wednesday afternoon, the hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea had more than 15,500 posts. Another 13,000 photos and videos used #aoleTMT (aole means “no” in Hawaiian).

At the same time, #WeSupportTMT had only 15 posts.

#WeAreMaunaKea #ProtectMaunaKea #alohaaina #tmtshutdown #aoletmt #ProtectorsNotProtesters #kukiamauna @protectmaunakea

A photo posted by Nicole Scherzinger (@nicolescherzy) on

The $1.4 billion project has been in the works for seven years but reached a crisis point earlier this month when 31 people were arrested for blocking construction crews from going up the mountain. Gov. David Ige called a moratorium on construction that is scheduled to run through Monday.

Efforts to block construction have garnered a lot of attention online, buoyed by celebrity endorsements from the likes of Jason Momoa, also known as Khal Drogo on the TV show “Game of Thrones,” and Nicole Scherzinger of the band Pussycat Dolls.

Ryan Ozawa, a local technology consultant, said the anti-TMT message — which includes the importance of indigenous cultures and protecting sacred sites — resonates with many people, making it difficult for others to publicly disagree. That’s part of why the protests have caught on in social media, and part of why it will be hard for the TMT to counteract them.

“It’s hard to be pro-TMT without being pegged as being against the many things the protesters are saying they stand for,” Ozawa wrote.

Scott Robertson, a University of Hawaii professor who supports the telescope project and studies the relationship between social media and political campaigns, said social media has had both positive and negative impacts in this case.

“Social media is a democratizing influence in that it allows the voices that couldn’t be heard before to be heard,” he said. “But whether it’s good for prolonged deliberation and discourse is questionable. This is one of those issues where at some point there has to be a resolution … Social media is a difficult place to have that discussion.”

A Small Group With Global Reach

While only a few dozen people are camping on Mauna Kea each night, they’re bolstered by global support.

More than 43,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling on the governor to stop construction. The petition has spread through Facebook groups like Protect Mauna Kea, a fan page that has more than 12,000 “likes.”

Celebrity appeals have boosted the profile of the cause to an unforeseen level.

In addition to Momoa and Scherzinger, Ian Somerhalder, an actor in the TV show “Vampire Diaries,” posted a photo of himself with the words “We Are Mauna Kea” written on his hand to his Instagram account, which has more than 4.6 million followers. The picture has garnered nearly 400,000 “likes.”

Professional surfers, including Kelly Slater, have also joined the cause, Slater by posting his own Instagram photo. Another pro surfer, Dustin Barca, was arrested when he joined the blockade of construction crews.

Mauna-Kea-signs1

A sign outside the Mauna Kea visitors’ center urges visitors to go on Facebook to learn more about the cause.

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Kealoha Pischiotta, who leads the group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and is a longtime opponent of the Thirty Meter Telescope, is surprised by how far the campaign has spread.

She has been involved in opposing telescopes on Mauna Kea for nearly 20 years and is party to two ongoing lawsuits in state court that aim to block the TMT. But despite years of activism, the controversy has never before received so much attention.

“The issues then were as egregious as they are now, but back in the day we didn’t even have cell phones,” Pischiotta said.

The funding that’s suddenly coming in opens the door to new legal action, potentially in federal court, she said.

Three GoFundMe petitions have raised more than $33,000 to fight the project. One petition has raised more than $10,700; another raised nearly $3,000; and yet another raised over $20,000.

That’s not much compared to the millions of dollars available to the universities in the U.S., Canada, Japan and China that are backing the telescope, but it’s a significant amount for the relatively small grassroots organization.

‘We Will Not Drop That Ball Again’

Not all social media sites are dominated by anti-TMT messages. On Reddit, discussion boards — mainly in the science section — have largely revolved around criticism of the protests and fears that Hawaii could lose the TMT if the blockade continues.

Sandra Dawson has handled community outreach for the TMT in Hawaii for seven years. At age 66, she’s not very familiar with sites like Twitter and Instagram and hasn’t relied on social media for community outreach in the past.

Instead, she has focused on getting to know people on the Big Island personally by serving on the local Chamber of Commerce, joining the Merrie Monarch parade and attending local events such as the school robotics tournament.

“I’ve known for a while that our Facebook page needed updating and it seemed like at the time, there were so many other more important things to do than update a Facebook page,” she said.

In the past few weeks, she has realized how many people social media can pull in, dwarfing the reach of local public hearings. Dawson now plans to hiring a college intern to handle the social media for the telescope.

“We will not drop that ball again,” she said.

Gwen Woltz, co-founder of the local social media firm Wahine Media, doesn’t have an opinion on the Mauna Kea controversy. But she said it’s a clear indication of the power of social media.

While hashtags like #TMTshutdown helped unify the opposition to the telescope, the delayed response shows a lack of planning on the part of the telescope proponents, she said.

“They certainly didn’t plan for the worst and now they’re kind of seeing the results of that,” she said. “That’s unfortunate because maybe they do have some awesome things to say and maybe it could have been different if they had a more proactive approach.”

Woltz hopes social media will become an avenue for real change and that public officials will see it is just as important as, say, people testifying at the State Capitol.

“How many thousands of posts on Instagram will it take to change something as big as a telescope?” she asked. “That will be something to find out …”

Many anti-TMT activists plan to capitalize on their suddenly high profile to spread the word about the dispossession of Hawaiian lands and the desire among many to re-establish a sovereign nation.

Last Friday on the mountaintop, Lanakila Manguil urged his fellow demonstrators to educate themselves about the history and significance of Mauna Kea.

“We don’t want this to be a fad,” he said.

But in another reminder of the power of technology and social media imagery, Manguil also urged his fellow activists to keep their cameras ready in case of another police confrontation.

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