Hawaii News — Electronic Legislature; The social media come of age in Hawaii politics

keyboard_sketch(Editor’s note: A version of this story appears in the latest print edition of Big Island Chronicle, which starts circulating Friday.)

By Alan McNarie

The Hawaii State Legislature is finally in recess after a fairly momentous session. It began with the overthrow of House Speaker Calvin Say, and culminated with the demise of the heavily criticized Public Land Development Corporation but the rise of “mini-PLDCs” for the development of harbors, submarine lands and Department of Education-controlled properties. Big Island legislator Faye Hanohano was castigated for using racial epithets to express her displeasure with the scarcity of art by Native Hawaiian artists in the state’s collections; Malama Solomon drew fire for her gruff handling of PLDC opponents, and fired back by calling for a police investigation of a “threatening” e-mail. Freshman Big Island legislators Nicole Lowen and Russell Ruderman made their presence felt in the progressive wing of the state’s Democratic Party. O`ahu Sen. Clayton Hee sabotaged the renewal of the state’s journalistic shield law, and had a hand in the last-minute scuttling of campaign finance reform.

But perhaps the biggest story of this legislative session was the rise of three major new players in state politics: Facebook, Twitter and You-Tube. The social media finally came into their own in Hawai`i, and the legislature may never be the same.

The first rumblings of the cyber-revolution in Hawaii came with the Occupied movement. Activists such as Kerri Peterson Marks began taking their laptops to public meetings and doing live Webcasts; suddenly the public could get a first-hand look at what was happening instantly, or call it up on You-Tube later, instead of driving to the meeting or waiting for Oceanic Time Warner’s delayed and irregular public access broadcasts.

“It takes the county and the state ten days to download links, and mine were available immediately,” says Peterson-Marks, who says she has “almost 800 videos up there now with 45,000 page views.”

The social media, she says, offer a “new paradigm for political activism.” 

“It’s become a lot easier to organize, to circulate petitions, to gather, to teach people how to testify—basically to explain the bill—to take the government legalese and translate it into understandable English,” she observes.

Several Occupy-related Facebook pages soon appeared, as well as host of pages related to specific issues and interests, from genetically modified crops to bicycle commuting.

But the new media really came of age with the grassroots rebellion against the PLDC, the unpopular new new state agency tasked with creating “public-private partnerships” to develop state lands. When newly appointed PLDC officials held public hearings across to state to discuss the agency’s draft administrative rules, they found that the swelling opposition at each new hearing had been primed by Webcasts of the hearing before.

As one activist noted, “A bunch of people on each island all started talking—‘They’re coming to your island next’–and they’d already seen the videos, so they were prepared for what was going on in a nutshell.”

A number of anti-PLDC groups and pages quickly appeared on Facebook. The largest, entitled simply “Abolish the PLDC,” gained nearly 1700 members; an administrator for the group told the Chronicle that in one week, the page got as many as 25,900 visits. It became a central meeting point for an extremely eclectic opposition. Native Hawaiians opposed the agency as yet another effort to appropriate Crown Lands; environmentalists decried the weakening of environmental safeguards under the agency; those who favored county home rule objected to the agency’s exemptions from county oversight; even some conservative activists got into the act, objecting to the agency’s small group of Democrat-appointed decision-makers getting to choose who got contracts.

“Now it’s like the floodgates have been opened,” one activist said. “Statewide, we’re all friends now: the Tea Party, the labor groups, the Hawaiian groups, the environmentalists, the Occupy groups, the GMO groups. We’re in instant communication with each other.”

Facebook pages and Twitter feeds became instant sources of information, subjecting the legislators to an unprecedented level of scrutiny: every amendment, every postponement, and every vote was instantly reported, and often drew a torrent of e-mailed testimony. PLDC supporters such as Solomon and Oahu’s Donovan Delacruz got special attention; Solomon even has the dubious honor of inspiring a Facebook page entitled “Malama Solomon must go.” Other, more media-savvy lawmakers such as Laura Thielan quickly turned the tide to their advantage, opening their own Facebook pages and becoming idols of the activists.

But the e-uprising didn’t work for every battle. Powerful committee chairs such as Hee, who can kill bills simply by refusing to hear them, sometimes simply dug in their heels. Hee’s insistence on an amendment excluding bloggers, Web journalists and advertising-driven, as opposed to subscription-driven, newspapers—i.e. “alt” papers such as the Honolulu Weekly and the Big Island Chronicle—torpedoed the renewal of Hawai`i’s “shield law.” (Full disclosure time: this journalist wrote to legislators in opposition to Hee’s amendment.) He also participated in the conference committee that mysteriously killed the campaign finance bill that had passed both houses. And that wasn’t all he killed.

“Hee did not hold a hearing on any of the eight bills put forward by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, the lead agency tasked with proposing changes to the state Ethics Code. And of the roughly two dozen pieces of stand-alone legislation related to ethics or campaign spending, only a handful received hearings and only a couple became law. The vast majority stalled in Hee’s committee without public vetting,” reported Honolulu Civil Beat, another online news source, in an article headlined, “How One Lawmaker Blocks Ethics Reform Year after Year.”

Not only the lawmakers, but their tactics also came under the magnifying glass of social media. Such time-honored tactics as “gut and replace”—allowing a bill to apparently die, but then amending another bill to replace its contents with the wording of the dead bill, often with very short public notice—suddenly weren’t as effective. After legislators voted to kill the PLDC, its supporters introduced a host of bills to rename it, modify it, and finally to create “mini-PLDCs” devoted to pilot public-private partnerships on smaller pools of land. Most of those quickly came under public scrutiny, and all but a handful died.

In addition to e-mail barrages and online-organized live demonstrations—on opening day of the legislative session, lawmakers ran a gauntlet of over a thousand anti-PLDC and anti-GMO demonstrators–citizens found another outlet for driving their points home: the on-line petition. Online sites such as moveon.org and change.org provide easy forms for starting such petitions, and local activists have taken full advantage of them. Move-On (http://petitions.moveon.org/find/?state=HI) currently hosts dozens of Hawai`i-related petitions on issues, including legalizing marijuana and same sex marriages, banning gut-and-replace bills and allowing the recall of public officials. Change.org has dozens more, including some calling on Governor Abercrombie to veto specific bills such as SB1170, which would allow archeological surveys of construction projects to happen in “phases” instead of requiring them completed before any construction begins.

But e-petitions and mass e-mailings also have a downside. Sen. Josh Green (Kona) notes that personal letters can be buried under a deluge of form letters. “If people write their personal feelings down, that impresses me and will affect my vote more,” he notes. “The best way is to bring awareness through social media, but then it’s important that people weigh in as individuals in their own words.”

Green says he currently deals with about 800 e-mails per day and that his correspondence has gone up by 300 percent in the past year.

“I don’t go to Facebook pages or watch U-Tube videos per se, but I did notice a definite uptick in correspondence,” he says. “If social media was responsible for that, then it’s very effective.”

But while he welcomes the increased voter participation, he also foresees problems if the level of voter input continues rise at its current rate. So does Kohala’s Rep. Cindy Evans. She thinks the legislature may have to adjust the way it does business, especially if new technologies such as teleconferencing take hold, allowing oral testimony from across the state. As it is, she notes, the legislature hears hundreds of bills each session, which means they have “very quick turnaround,” she notes. Now, with massively increased public input, the legislature may have to consider limiting the number of bills that it hears per session and/or limiting personal testimony to “two or three minutes.”

But she also sees the value of this increased involvement. “They [voters] know that maybe they can have influence. They’re more involved.”

And she thinks legislators also benefit.

“You’re more informed,” she says. “When you make that decision, you understand more about how people on both sides think,–and people in the middle.”

She’s not a regular Facebook and Twitter user, though she says her staff are working on her to get “into the habit.” But she has learned the advantage of Googling information on her cell phone as she’s having conversations. She notes that some younger legislators are much more adept with the technology.

One of those Young Techno-Turks is Kona freshman representative Nicole Lowen.

“I started using Facebook when I was in my twenties, and now I’m in my thirties,” she observes. “As time passes, it’s going to be more and more ubiquitous.”

She pushing a bill to foster more teleconference-based testimony—the Senate already has a pilot program—but the bill “didn’t make it out of conference at the end of the session.” She thinks such capability would work to the advantage of neighbor islanders, who could testify live without paying for a plane ticket.

She uses her Facebook page to keep in touch with her constituents. “People know I’m working hard and haven’t just disappeared. It’s good to be able to post things on Facebook and let people know what’s happening.”

So can social media be the great counterbalance, leveling the playing field for the public against corporate lobbyists?

Maybe, thinks Lowen: “It certainly serves the small person more than the corporation, but I think campaign finance reform will have a bigger effect.”

“They can do slicker ads,” says Peterson-Marks. “They can do prettier. We have to baffle them by doing more.”

6 replies
  1. Damon
    Damon says:

    I hate to say “See… I told you so”.

    The Big Island has been so far behind on online things for many reasons.

    I will personally thank Tiffany and other folks that are trying to make news more accessible for the common folks.

    People must realize that just like newspapers… independent websites, twitter accounts, Facebook groups, etc… all have their own personal agenda.

    I want to repeat the fact that the NEWSPAPERS agenda is to make money.

    Most of us trying to get news out there are happy to get a sponsor or two and have real jobs.

    Many of us give a lot to our sites with no recognition or really no concern if we do get recognized for our work… so be it.

    The key is for folks to start understanding that Social Media has a place for all of us.

    The way we use it to help each other out… or in sad cases bring others down…. is up to themselves.

    I’m amazed Big Island Video News was not mentioned in this article.

    Big Island Video News played more of a part in the last election then many folks realize.

    That website was completely an “online” platform.

  2. hugh clark
    hugh clark says:

    If this session if an outcome of “social” media we are all damned, just like Clayton Hee.

  3. Andy Parx
    Andy Parx says:

    Good piece Alan.
    I asked what the panel on Social Media on the last Island Insights thought about how the “organizational tool” of Facebook influenced things like the PLDC. Although they acknowledged it had some effect Ryan Ozawa’s response was typical saying “I don’t see how a bunch of “likes” are going to be an agent for change. Talk about not getting it…
    And Melissa Chang, billed as a “social media specialist,” looked like a deer in the headlights at the suggestion that it could be used for political action(just what you’d expect from a marketer).She just bragged about how she gets freebies for advertising people’s products on social media.
    These guys just don’t have a clue (sorry Hugh but you too). Neither do the legislators… yet
    They will.

  4. Damon
    Damon says:

    @Andy we can’t smack around folks like Ryan and Melissa who have succeeded in using Social Media the way they choose to use it.

    As I say… we all have different way’s of using it. They may not use it politically the way others of us do… but I will say that both Ryan and Melissa have huge online audiences… so they must be doing something right. 😉

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