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Celebrities use social media to voice objection to TMT


By COLIN M. STEWART Hawaii Tribune-Herald


After years of flying under the radar, at least on an international scale, the debate over the Thirty Meter Telescope has gone viral, thanks in large part to celebrity endorsements on social media.

Since the project’s earliest beginnings, a small, dedicated group of Hawaii residents has struggled to stop the construction of the TMT near the summit of Mauna Kea. However, over seven years of public comment, debate, land board meetings, environmental assessments, court appeals and more, the project steadily progressed.

But when construction was slated to begin April 2, the TMT opponents took a stand on the summit road, blocking the ascent of heavy equipment and workers. Police arrested 31 of the self-proclaimed protectors of the mountain and in the process ignited a flurry of news coverage and interest.

Among those who stood up and took notice was a group of celebrities with strong ties to Hawaii who began spreading word of the protests on the mountain via their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

“Game of Thrones” actor Jason Momoa, singers Nicole Scherzinger and Anuhea, “Lost” actor Ian Somerhalder, retired mixed martial arts champion BJ Penn, surfing pro Kelly Slater and others posted photos of themselves with the words “We Are Mauna Kea” written on signs and on their bodies, calling for people to sign on to an online petition and show their support for the protests.

Their outreach via social media caught on like wildfire, spreading to thousands of people around the world.

Over the past two weeks, attempts by Hawaii Tribune-Herald to ask some of the celebrities — including Momoa, Scherzinger, Anuhea and Penn — about their involvement were unsuccessful. But there’s no question that their interest has sparked a new phase in the long-running fight over TMT, protest organizers say.

“We consider it kind of like a miracle, and I just feel really blessed to have all of this overflowing show of aloha,” said Mauna Kea Anaina Hou President Kealoha Pisciotta. “I really think that the deeper message behind all of it is the aloha, and I think that’s what called out to famous people. They were witnessing our people getting arrested. … I think the emotional response of seeing the aunties and uncles getting arrested really … pulled at their heart strings and called out to them.”

It was Momoa who helped decide on and popularize the phrase “We are Mauna Kea” for the campaign during a two-day stay with the protesters on the mountain shortly after the arrests, Pisciotta said.

“They (celebrities) are actually quite educated on (the debate over the telescope). They did their homework,” Pisciotta said. “When they come out we get to deepen their understanding, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, too. But I was actually really shocked when Jason Momoa … was able to talk in depth about it.”

Momoa posted regular photo updates on his Instagram account, PrideofGypsies, from the mountain as he spoke with the protesters and discussed his desire to broaden awareness of the issue through the use of his celebrity, she said. Since then, the #WeAreMaunaKea campaign has taken off, with many of Momoa’s celebrity friends and acquaintances Tweeting and Instagramming the phrase, along with their own words of support.

The effects of the celebrity involvement in the spreading of the message are evident when looking at Twitter posts since the protests on the mountain began.

There were no mentions of the hashtag “WeAreMaunaKea” on Twitter until April 5, when there were 10, according to the social analytics site Topsy. By April 7, that number had ballooned to 461 mentions, with the lion’s share being attributed to a Scherzinger Tweet, which was re-Tweeted by other members 378 times. The next day, Scherzinger was again the top Tweeter, with the phrase being mentioned 1,808 times.

The celebrity endorsements triggered an avalanche of support, Pisciotta said, including donations to various crowd-funding sites which the Hawaiian environmental nonprofit group Kahea is working to organize.

But is the outpouring of support completely a good thing?

While social media has the ability to spread awareness of the protests on a mass scale, it can sometimes fall short when it comes to providing all the information people need to decide where they stand on an issue, said Alton Okinaka, associate professor and chair of the Social Sciences Division at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

“My impression is that the people involved in the protests for a long time understand the need to follow the rules, and what’s come before. They’re willing to be arrested, but there’s no way they would condone violence or taking it to the next level,” he said. “What I’m afraid of is that the Johnny-Come-Latelys may not show so much restraint. They don’t understand the process completely, and they’re only picking up what they know from sources like Twitter, where no one checks for factual accuracy.

“They (the protesters) could poison their own movement and create a very negative backlash. They could hurt their own cause by doing that.”

Pisciotta says she and other organizers of the protests are aware of the shortcomings of social media and they have worked hard to keep the people who stand with them in opposition to the telescope on the same page.

“We all know that we don’t control everybody,” she said. “We’ve spoken from the very beginning … people are learning quickly how we have to conduct ourselves in relation to Mauna Kea. Because what people feel is a sense of outrage and upset, from a sacred place. But what part of the whole message is, when you come to Mauna Kea, you come to heal, to let your heart be healed by Mauna Kea.

“There’s no question you should feel these things, but the question is, how do you deal with those feelings? And I think the message has been we must remember to conduct ourselves in accordance with the protocol of Mauna Kea, which is aloha.”

Regardless of how people new to the movement may act, however, Okinaka said the onus falls on them to ensure that they have all the facts before they make the decision as to where they stand on the issue. As an example, he pointed out that social media, television and other media sources can give false impressions when they present a single voice speaking in opposition to TMT, and then label that voice as a Native Hawaiian.

“It gives the impression they are speaking for all Hawaiians,” he said. “Like almost everything else that involves Hawaiian issues, I don’t think there’s a consensus (on TMT). My perception is that they spend more time arguing with themselves than anyone else. … They often can’t even agree on who is Hawaiian.”

Okinaka said he’s seen a number of inaccuracies spread around by social media concerning the debate of the construction of the telescope, from the supposed dangers posed to the environment to the impacts on isle residents.

“The facts … sometimes get lost in the noise,” he said.

Email Colin M. Stewart at

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