It is fighting fire with fire — state agencies are starting to see the value of using social media aggressively.

Increasingly, state offices are using Facebook and Twitter to hit back when postings on social media sites spread inaccurate information or encourage illegal activities on state land.

Curt Cottrell of the State Parks Division, Department of Land and Natural Resources, calls social media, “Our latest, greatest little technological warfare device.”

Cottrell says, “It’s amazing we haven’t done this sooner. But at least we are doing it now.”

DLNR is using Facebook and Twitter as well as YouTube and to post an informational video called “Sacred Falls — Don’t Risk Your Life, A Fine, or Jail.”

Sacred Falls Trail

Hikers tempted to embark on the closed Sacred Falls trail encounter not only a closed sign, but a link to a six-minute video explaining the dangers.

Department of Land and Natural Resources

The goal is to fight back against the bloggers who continue to encourage people to hike illegally on the Sacred Falls Trail near Laie on Windward Oahu.

Sacred Falls Trail has been closed to the public for more than 15 years after eight people died in a rock fall on Mother’s Day 1999, and 50 others were injured.

“It’s a paradigm shift for us.” — Curt Cottrell, DLNR

DLNR’s video shows two hikers getting slapped with a criminal citation after they sneaked onto the off-limits trail. 

It also talks about how it’s culturally disrespectful to rappel down the vertical cliffs framing Sacred Falls valley and how firefighters’ own lives are imperiled when they’re called to rescue injured hikers.

Dan Dennison, DLNR’s senior communications manager, says when he made the video to counter message bloggers, he knew he had to hit back hard.

“We wanted to do something directly in your face,” says Dennison.

The video has received almost 16,000 hits since it was released in February. And since then, major websites such as Yelp and Exploration Hawaii have voluntarily stopped promoting the Sacred Falls Trail and now post DLNR’s video.

After the video went online, there have been fewer criminal citations issued to trespassers. Last year, more than 120 were cited. This year nobody has been cited since February.

QR Codes Along the Way

DLNR is also spreading its message by posting signs on various access routes into Sacred Falls Park with a QRC (Quick Response Code) that, when scanned, links cell phones directly to the online video.

As of Friday, 56 people had scanned the QRCs on the signs at Sacred Falls.

That’s a bit unsettling. It means at least 56 people have illegally sneaked onto the trail since the QR code signs were installed two weeks ago.      

Some of the illegal hikers may have turned back after they scanned the video, but DLNR says it has no way of knowing if they did.

State Parks assistant administrator Cottrell says it’s the first time DLNR has actively fought back with social media and used QR codes to spread an important warning.

“It’s a paradigm shift for us,” says Cottrell.

Curt Cottrell of DLNR at Sacred Falls trail

Curt Cottrell said the Internet video and signs at Sacred Falls trail represent the first time DLNR has actively fought back with social media and QR codes to spread an important warning.

Department of Land and Natural Resources

In addition to warning people about dangerous trails, Cottrell says he also sees the value of using QR codes in the future to offer hikers interpretive information about the history and native plant life on state trails.

Despite this effort, the Sacred Falls hike continues to be promoted by some diehard bloggers, including Easy Hiker Hawaii.

When I spoke with communications manager Dennison for this column, he was busy crafting an email to urge the Easy Hiker Hawaii blogger to remove specific directions he has posted to Sacred Falls Trail.

Dennison says he and his assistant, Joshua Mapanao, are always vigilant, always searching for errant websites that continue to encourage the illegal hiking.

Sacred Falls

Sacred Falls remains a tempting attraction promoted by some diehard bloggers.


Dennison is a former KHON-TV and KHNL news director. Since he was hired by DLNR in January 2014, he has created more than 270 videos for the agency. He shoots, edits and sometimes voices the videos.

Dennison says he is continually amazed by the power of social media to reach so many people so quickly.

He is already at work on another video to counter message social media sites, which for years have been urging visitors to hike the Kalalau Trail on the Napali Coast on Kauai without offering enough information about the possible dangers.

Dennison says novice hikers are heading for Kalalau completely unprepared with no water and wearing only rubber slippers to traverse the muddy, overcrowded and difficult trail. “People have to know what they are getting into,” he says.

Dennison will link the new video to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo to give hikers tips on how to prepare for the Kalalau Trail and warn them about potentially dangerous conditions that have resulted in injuries and deaths.

In March, Kauai fire rescue crews came to the aid of 32 stranded hikers, trapped when the rain-swollen Hanakapiai stream on the trail became impassable. 

Last year, 62 hikers had to be airlifted off the trail when rain made several streams impassable. The hikers had been warned to stay off the trail, yet had hiked it anyway.

“We want to reach people on the platforms they are using, to make sure they get the correct information,” says Dennison.

Spreading Accurate Info; Debunking Rumors

Another state agency that has become talented in its use of social media is the Public Safety Department.

Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz uses Facebook and Twitter to address rumors posted on social media on the whereabouts of escaped prisoners, and about the availability of visits to inmates at the state prison facilities.

“We learned a while ago that if you want to fight back or at least get the correct facts out there, you have to use social media,” says Schwartz.

“Social media helps us squash misinformation posted on  Twitter and Facebook, where it can spread very quickly.”

Schwartz says when inaccurate information was posted on social media on the whereabouts of escaped prisoner Daniel Skelton last year, the Public Safety Department decided to post on Facebook and Twitter everything it knew about the current location of Skelton as soon as it knew it, giving status updates in real time.

Arrest-mug-Daniel Skelton

Daniel Skelton was recaptured after his image jumped from Facebook to TV.

Department of Public Safety

You may remember Skelton. He was the Oahu prison inmate on the loose April 14-15, 2014. He painted his face black and dyed his hair Ronald McDonald orange in a goofy effort to evade capture.

Schwartz says within minutes of posting a screen capture of surveillance video of Skelton with his orange hair on Facebook, TV stations put the picture in their breaking news updates.

A woman saw Skelton’s picture on TV. When Skelton came to the front door of her house to ask for water, she started yelling. Sheriffs and U.S. marshals searching for Skelton in the neighborhood heard her yell and rushed to capture him.

“I think social media is so effective and important. It makes my job easier when something big or potentially dangerous happens, such as a prisoner escape,” says Schwartz.

“We want to get the information out to the largest audience possible and the only thing that matters is that the public gets the right information.”

Still another state department getting wiser in learning how to fight social media with social media is the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, formerly called State Civil Defense.

In recent emergencies, EMA has used the Hawaii Virtual Operations Team to scan social media sites for erroneous information. 

“Social media helps us squash misinformation posted on  Twitter and Facebook, where it can spread very quickly.” — Toni Schwartz, Department of Public Safety

The team of 117 volunteers headed by social media expert Burt Lum flags misinformation circulating online to alert civil defense officials, who then correct the rumors on government web and social media sites.

VOST volunteers also expand the reach of the corrected information by making sure it gets posted and spread on the volunteers’  own extensive social media networks.

Rumors quickly corrected in the past include a social media posting that wrongly claimed the Federal Emergency Management Agency was distributing free generators to Pahoa residents after Hurricane Iselle. Also corrected was a rumor that FEMA was buying residential sites damaged by the lava flow moving near Pahoa.

DLNR’s Cottrell says,  “Social media is a much more vibrant and contemporary way of getting out any kind of message.”

“It’s a game changer.”

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