With construction of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope indefinitely suspended, the social media movement protesting it has, understandably, come to something of a standstill.
In early April, more than 1,500 tweets used the hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea in a single day. These days, fewer than 200 do.
“We don’t want this to be a fad,” protest leader Lanakila Mangauil told his fellow demonstrators back in early April.
An ‘A’ole TMT sign at a University of Hawaii Manoa rally on April 13. Hashtags fueled the protests of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Regardless of what happens with the construction of the TMT, it’s safe to say that #WeAreMaunaKea will not go down in history as a passing fad, the Internet equivalent of a one-hit wonder.
Hashtag activism, as it has come to be known, is proving itself to be an effective tool for change, especially when employed by the millennial generation. The term itself was coined during the millennials’ first real political movement, Occupy Wall Street, and like its progenitors, it’s grown up a lot in the past four years.
In its early stages, hashtag activism was often labeled as a symptom of the lazy, navel-gazing nature of millennials.
As The Atlantic recently observed, “Think pieces present hashtag activism as vanity activism, in which narcissistic pronouncements substitute for actual engagement, and anger is leveraged at best for petty entertainment and at worst for coordinated harassment.”
On the surface, I’ll admit, it’s an easy target. After all, when our parents were our age, they were burning bras and marching on the National Mall in their attempts to change the status quo. In contrast, millennial activism has come to mean tweeting trending hashtags and pouring ice water over our heads.
The #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls social media movements of 2012 and 2014 respectively are often seen as the poster children of this failed, seemingly self-serving variety of activism.
Critics are quick to point out that Joseph Kony, the brutal African cult and militia leader, is still at large (although his notoriety skyrocketed) and the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram are still missing (although the Nigerian Army has recently rescued close to 700 women and children).
But, as is the case with most millennial-related bashing, the tide is starting to turn on the efficacy and value of this new tool and mindset. In the past few years, hashtag activism has been responsible for several major accomplishments, both big and small, both concrete and abstract.
When the Susan G. Komen Foundation cut funding to Planned Parenthood in 2012, for example, the hashtags #StandWithPP and #RaceToStopChoice took off immediately, causing a firestorm of media coverage as well as political pressure. Funding was restored within a matter of days — much faster than any traditional method of demonstration could have accomplished.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the almost 2-year-old #BlackLivesMatter movement isn’t petitioning for a specific policy action, but rather serves as a collective voice of frustration. Its ability to effect change, as a recent New York Times Magazine piece put it, is “purely by creating an atmosphere of awareness and constant urgency around an issue that was previously ignored.”
And it’s proving to be successful. The movement can, in large part, be credited with last Friday’s announcement to charge six Baltimore police officers with a range of crimes for the arrest and fatal injury of Freddie Gray.
“The larger message, if there is one, is that we’re moving on these things,” David A. Harris, a law professor and expert on police racial issues at the University of Pittsburgh, told The New York Times about the Baltimore indictments. “We’re taking them seriously, and there’s no longer going to be any kind of slowing down and taking it to the point where people wonder, ‘Whatever happened to that?’ ”
Which brings us to the question — “whatever happened to that?” — that many in Hawaii fear will be the fate of the viral TMT protests.
There is no clear way past the current moratorium on TMT construction despite the more than 20,000 photos on Instagram tagged with #WeAreMaunaKea. The photos serve as the modern day equivalent of signing a petition, and while the petition has become more vociferous and the signatures more personal, petitions don’t always succeed.
Regardless of the TMT outcome, however, 24-year-old Hawaiian language scholar Paige Okamura thinks this is just the beginning.
Hashtag activism is leading to real, substantive change in Hawaii, she says, largely because her generation is stepping up to the plate.
“Now you are seeing a surge in educated Hawaiians,” she says. “Last spring, the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge graduated its largest class to date of both graduate and undergraduate students with degrees in Hawaiian Studies and Hawaiian Language.”
For this new generation of Hawaiians, social media is the quickest form of communication, much faster, Okamura says, “than what we call ‘coconut wireless.’”
While hashtag activism comes with some dangers — from sharing misleading and blatantly false information to providing a forum for bullying or racist remarks — its legacy is in its ability to inspire, educate and mobilize a movement and a generation.
Embracing it as a strategy, says Jade Snow, the 28-year-old managing editor of MANA magazine, “shows that we are engaged, we are educating ourselves, and we are finding new ways to effect change.”
“Because of that,” she says, “I don’t just think we will make a difference, I know we will, because we have already begun to.”
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues