In 2013 perhaps more than any other year, social media played a fundamental role in Hawaii political activism and civic engagement.

Well-known Kauai blogger Andy Parx said social media, particularly Facebook, helped facilitate spreading simple messages to often leaderless groups of people who wanted to achieve some fairly specific goals.

In some cases, it was about forcing regulations on biotech companies, in others it involved eliminating the controversial Public Land Development Corporation, and so on.

“People told their friends and neighbors, in their own words, and it spread exponentially, even among those who ordinarily don’t get involved in politics,” Parx said.

“I really think that’s the value of social media, as a tool for citizen action that doesn’t need traditional leadership.”

Molokai community activist Walter Ritte has been at the forefront of the state’s anti-GMO movement. For him, social media has been a bridge that reaches across the space between the islands.

To attend a meeting on Kauai, Ritte said he would need to fly to Oahu first and then to the Garden Isle. The two plane tickets can cost more than $300. “And then came social media and, God, we’re talking to each other for free,” Ritte said. “That allows us to organize. It was like there was a big void and social media filled that void.”

That empty space was left by the general retreat of old news media as it diminished coverage of neighbor islands, Ritte said.

He was instrumental in the long fight to return the island of Kahoolawe from the U.S. military, which had used it for bombing practice, back to the state’s control in 2003.

“We brought our message to the regular news media when we did Kahoolawe, and we really had some good reporters investigating things,” Ritte said. “The (old) news media was key in bringing the issue to Hawaii households through the television and newspapers.”

Few traditional media really fulfill that role anymore, he notes.

In an age when short-staffed news staffs rely on social media to help broaden their reportorial reach, activists in Hawaii are growing increasingly agile in using web tools to steer broader discussions and affect public perceptions.

With 2013 over, it is clear that Hawaii’s maturing social media breathed new life into the state’s activism. Here are some high-water markets for social media effectiveness, regardless of how you feel about the causes.

The Anti-GMO Movement

It is no coincidence that one of the most populated issue-related search topics on various social media is #GMOs, which is largely due to the work of Hawaii’s anti-biotech movement. A search of #GMO on Instagram shows more than 70,000 photo results, with posts from Hawaii being frequent. Even a more specific search, focusing on something like #Bill2491 — Kauai’s pesticide and GMO disclosure legislation that passed in November — returns hundreds of posts.

The Facebook page for the Hawaii GMO Justice Coalition has more than 18,000 fans. The image above, posted in August 2013, was shared 385 times. The movement culminated in the Aloha Aina march against Monsanto in early December. That very day, plenty of organizers, professional surfers and march participants all posted messages on Instagram.

The anti-GMO movement enjoyed some key victories, first in Kauai with Bill 2491, then on the Big Island with Bill 113.

The Star-Advertiser’s Derrick DePledge had a good story in September about mainland cash that flows into Hawaii’s anti-GMO movement from the Ceres Trust and other big money seed activists. Biotech companies may still have had more resources, but their activist opponents were effective in framing online discussions in the virtual world where the pro-GMO and pro-pesticide forces were small.

This debate also dominated Civil Beat’s Community Voices section, with farmers like Richard Ha and University of Hawaii professors taking turns speaking out against many of the anti-biotech activists.

Instead of taking turns speaking, Hawaii activists took to social media, where everyone can talk.

“The issue rose from just a handful of people to thousands marching on the streets. That was beyond what we thought was going to happen,” Ritte said. “I think social media allowed the outside islands to organize. I thought Kauai was a shining example of what it takes for the democratic process to work. It was borderline impossible, but Kauai crossed that line.”


Another big activist victory in Hawaii last year came from the marriage equality movement, spearheaded by the Hawaii United For Marriage coalition. During the special session, activists in favor of marriage for all were smaller in numbers at the capitol. But online, the movement was more organized, nimbly creating sharable flyers and photos with eye-catching fonts that were coupled with quotes to galvanize support for same-sex marriage.

Marriage equality activists tended to be younger digital native members of the millennial generation, and it showed. Hawaii’s pro-gay marriage twenty- and thirty-somethings quickly decided that the conclusion of the debate was evident. So they backed it online and didn’t feel much need to show up at the Legislature day after day.

On the day the Senate passed the bill, the hashtag #HI4M — short for Hawaii for Marriage — trended nationally on Twitter.

Let the People Vote


Pastor Elwin Ahu made this post on Facebook to mobilize opponents of same-sex marriage to testify before state House representatives.

The anti-gay marriage “Let the People Vote” movement lost. But it still merits a place on this list. Those who were against the gay marriage bill succeeded in framing the debate, at least inside the Legislature and to some extent in the media, in contrast to virulent anti-gay marriage protesters who engaged in shout-downs in the state Capitol rotunda.

The so-called “citizens’ filibuster” gained national attention, including this article in the Wall Street Journal. Much of the organization and many of the calls to action were on social media, including the post above from New Hope Pastor Elwin Ahu, clearly announcing the opposition’s efforts to delay the state House committee votes on the bill.

The “filibuster,” which failed to meaningfully affect the process, was a somewhat misguided tactical attempt to buy time while opponents worked to change the minds of lawmakers who had for the most part already decided on the issue.

When the final legislative votes came, there were few surprises. Dejected opponents of the bill screamed to lawmakers that they would remember in November.

Whether there are negative repercussions for politicians or not in the coming election remains to be seen, but it was enough to make pro-marriage equality Sen. Clayton Hee worry about potential fallout, as he said at a Civil Cafe event in November.

Repeal the PLDC

This petition was able to succeed in gaining enough online signatures in its campaign to repeal the Public Land Development Corporation.

“As with any new law, public understanding and support are essential. In the case of the PLDC, best intentions and the potential for public good could not be reconciled with public concerns,” said Gov. Abercrombie in signing a bill to get rid of the Public Land Development Corporation.

As with the anti-GMO movement, much of the social media outcry came from the neighbor islands. There was also plenty of cross-pollination between the two movements. The PLDC was nixed in April of last year, and Facebook pages that called for dismantling the agency, then refocused their posts on the anti-GMO movement.

In 2012, the state faced heated criticism from neighbor island activists for not holding hearings there. It was a problem social media helped to solve, Ritte said, by uniting the activists into one inter-island community.

“Hawaii politics is Oahu-centric,” Ritte said. “People don’t go and organize outside of Oahu. It’s too expensive. But in this case, with the PLDC, because of social media, a lot of the testimony came from off-island.”

Weldon Kekauoha vs. Halekulani


Award-winning Hawaiian singer Weldon Kekauoha took to Facebook to complain about alleged racial tension at the Halekulani hotel in Waikiki, which went viral the day it was posted.

The post above received almost 500 comments and was shared more than 4,300 times. It was written by award-winning singer Weldon Kekauoha as a complaint about alleged racial bias at the luxury hotel Halekulani. Within hours of being posted, it went viral and brought a firestorm of bad publicity to the Waikiki hotel. For more than a day, the hotel’s Facebook timeline was bombarded with hundreds of posts containing words like “racist,” “disgraceful” and “not pono.” The company was slow — at least in the social media universe — to address and tamp down the controversy.

Eventually the hotel apologized and made amends with the singer. For the hotel, it was a harsh lesson in how social media fires ignite quickly and, sometimes, unpredictably.


Kakaako is often touted as Honolulu’s future urban core, and it is partly by design of Kamehameha Schools, a landowner with construction plans for the area that include a shopping retail center and a condo complex.

Kamehameha Schools is also host to a number of youth- and family-oriented organizations, from the ambitious annual graffiti project Pow Wow Hawaii to wildly successful monthly events like Eat the Street and Honolulu Night Market. All of these events are linked to an online strategy that appears under the banner of #OurKakaako, which has its own blog.

Their success in creating a sense of local community runs parallel to their efforts to get approval for building projects from the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which faces increasing criticism for fast-tracking many Kakaako projects, including some of those put forward by Kamehameha Schools.

Paul Kay, director of real estate development at Kamehameha Schools, touts the planned shopping center as an “outdoor hangout of our new, urban neighborhood,” on the landowner’s website.

It seems to be pretty effective.

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