In the month since the Thirty Meter Telescope construction was slated to start, protestors have used social media to control the narrative, rally support and mobilize supporters.

Their work has met with initial success. Gov. David Ige extended the deadline for the start of telescope construction for two years.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said Ige had suspended construction for two years. In fact, the governor extended a state deadline for beginning construction.

How did protestors accomplish this?

On Mauna Kea, every camera-equipped smartphone is a mobile broadcast station. Protestors use them to document the protest – with pictures and live videos on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Social media platforms like Instagram have helped bolster the Mauna Kea protest. 

Control The Narrative

Protestors reached a critical mass at the start of the protest, so mass arrests were never an option. Any mistreatment of protestors was documented by witnesses and immediately submitted to major news outlets. This concerted effort to control the narrative on social media probably contributes to the generational divide in public opinion, with older people supporting the telescope and younger people opposing it.

The social media push began with dramatic images and videos of kupuna chained to a grate in the road. This was followed by live coverage of their arrests. For people unaware of the conflict, their first exposure might have been witnessing the arrests of protestors like Walter Ritte and Pualani Kanakaole Kanahele.

The peaceful dignity of these initial protestors established the media frame for the following weeks of encampment and protest.

Ritte and other kupuna embodied the idea of kapu aloha, an instruction to “act with only kindness, love and empathy.” Their example continues to influence the ethos of civil disobedience on Mauna Kea.

Civil disobedience conducted in accordance with kapu aloha is similar to satyagraha, a strategy employed by Gandhi and Indian activists in their fight against British imperialism. Gandhi and other activists knew they were outgunned, and they used that to their advantage. They adopted nonviolent resistance strategies that proved effective.

When protestors act in accordance with kapu aloha or satyagraha, they place authorities in a tricky position. Treat nonviolent protestors harshly, and risk losing the moral high ground. Do nothing, and lose the conflict.

Rally Support

Protest supporters have used social media to express their beliefs and rally support.

Hashtags like #ProtectMaunakea have helped supporters form networks. Other supporters have started activist Facebook groups.

Social media has also allowed groups on Mauna Kea to organize and disseminate content. Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu is active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They also have their own website.

Many local artists have visited the protest site, including Nā Hōkū Hanohano award-winning hip-hop artist Punahele and local songwriter Hāwane Rios.

But the support of the protest is not limited to local celebrities. World famous celebrities have also offered support, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason Momoa and Bruno Mars.

The protestors have courted the right social media influencers, and their endorsements continue to ripple through the internet.

Mobilize Protestors

Many of my friends have spoken out in support of the protestors. Some have journeyed to Mauna Kea. And others have contributed support from afar.

Social media allows for rapid mobilization of protestors. Memes and viral posts spread awareness fast and without cost. No need to print flyers and leaflets. Just tweet and go.

Would-be visitors to Mauna Kea can receive travel instructions online. They can coordinate rides from the airport via social media. They can check to see what supplies are needed at the camp before they arrive.

People who can’t make the journey can still contribute financially. But they don’t need to mail a check. Cash App and Venmo transactions take seconds, and funds go straight to those in need.

Mauna Kea Demonstration outside the Kalanimoku Building.
Mauna Kea protestors take every opportunity to promote the hashtags that spread the word on social media. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For instance, last week, Punahele posted a request for funds on Instagram. A few protestors were shuttling people to and from Mauna Kea. Their cars needed repairs, and they didn’t have parts or money. In less than an hour, their needs were met by donors.

This use of social media reduces the need for a rigid command structure. Protestors aren’t required to submit requisition requests to camp authorities. Instead, they can share requests directly to their social networks. If followers view requests as legitimate, they echo them within their own social networks. Needs are met quickly, and there’s almost no administrative overhead.

Protest In The 21st Century

In his March on Washington address, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

If King were speaking today, audience members would live-tweet quotable lines. Others would livestream from the front row. And supporters wouldn’t need the speech filtered through the evening news – they’d get it straight from the speaker’s mouth.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.