It’s hard to tell most days if social media is a blessing or a curse. Regardless of your personal thoughts on the matter, there is no denying that social media at the very least enabled and enhanced the ability to engender important dialogues across spaces.

Perhaps the most interesting example of how this has worked to impact social issues is #kanakatwitter, the growing number of Hawaiians politically engaged on Twitter.

Approximately 10 years ago, the black community began to claim its own space on Twitter through the use of the hashtag #blacktwitter. Through the use of this hashtag, the black community began to create its own distinct network of users, many both politically and culturally conscious, who leverage the network to identify and draw attention to issues.

Over the last decade, this network of black social media activists has proven itself a formidable social and political force. Early work of Black Twitter focused on amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement. Operating outside mainstream media, Black Twitter successfully shared “front line” information about the movement’s actions and successes. By offering raw footage of rallies, protests, and demonstrations, Black Twitter offered the public raw, authentic access to events that have been traditionally filtered by formal media outlets.

Social media played an important role in helping people get to Mauna Kea to participate in the demonstrations. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat

This has been incredibly important to reclaiming narratives that have been often crafted in ways that harm the black community, whether through writing a narrative wrought with misinformation or a narrative that strips away nuance and cultural authenticity. Social media offers people the opportunity to share their own stories, and it is also an opportunity for communities to build their own collective narratives reinforced and amplified by their own members.

Black Twitter also offered outsiders a unique entry into black culture, as the black community powerfully inserted its own vernacular and customs into the fast-moving dialogues. It is an extraordinary and beautiful claiming of space. It not only enabled people of shared identity to communicate across distances, it also allowed this community to quickly mobilize in response to problems, particularly instances of injustice. Last year, an article in the Guardian described Black Twitter as “a diligent, occasionally merciless watchdog for problematic behavior.”

What is Fault Lines?
“Fault Lines” is a special project that throughout the coming year will explore discord in Hawaii and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. Read more here.

Other marginalized groups began to adopt this success from the black community to develop their own social media networks. #NativeTwitter is one network that mirrored Black Twitter’s framework. In 2017, Twitter user Adam Keawe began to use the hashtag #kanakatwitter, kanaka being a term for Hawaiian.

There was nominal use of the Kanaka Twitter hashtag throughout 2017 and 2018. In the summer of 2019, the hashtag saw a sudden spike in use. The focus in the early summer was primarily around academic conferences where kanaka were physically gathered, but different Hawaiian Twitter users began to find each other and follow each other on Twitter during this period. By early July, Kanaka Twitter was gaining traction thanks to Hawaiian Twitter users identifying each other and becoming linked on Twitter.

By the time mid-July and the Mauna Kea demonstrations began on Hawaii island, Kanaka Twitter had grown to a collective of socially conscious Hawaiians across the world who were happy and eager to use Twitter as a platform to educate the larger public about Mauna Kea.

One of the very early and powerful efforts of #KanakaTwitter was #KanakaUber, which allowed people headed to Mauna Kea to find rides and carpool to reach the remote site of the demonstration. Kanaka Uber was just one example where what was happening at the camp directly linked to what was taking place on social media.

Improvements in technology that allowed for livestreaming or quick posting of photos also provided an important tool in helping Hawaiians and kia‘i (protectors) control the messaging and narrative around Mauna Kea. This allowed community members, academics and activists to gather and respond quickly to developing events.

This network allowed people who did not have direct communication to the kia‘i basecamp opportunity to support the efforts, whether by providing donations, supplies or rides.

When I put out the question: “In your experience, what is the best thing about #kanakatwitter?” the answers demonstrated how powerful the network has become, both socially, but also personally for people.

Whereas Hawaiian diaspora has been a long-standing challenge in the community, Kanaka Twitter shows the network can be an important source of connection and engagement. Social media has shown how these virtual venues can play a critical role in sharing the voices of groups who have otherwise been long silenced or stifled.

The long-term impacts of a world significantly influenced by social media may still be unclear, but the fact that groups use the platforms to respond to injustice, raise social awareness, and build affinity and support is certainly something to celebrate.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.