Fight over rail transit heats up online
A satirical e-mail is the latest salvo in the debate over rail
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A continuing debate on the Internet between the pro- and anti-rail groups has shaped much of the conversation surrounding the city's planned $4 billion rail transit system.
An anti-rail group attempting to stop the project through a petition initiative credits the Internet for its being able to collect about 35,000 of the nearly 45,000 signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot.
In response, rail proponents formed a group and Web site to counter these efforts in addition to a recent surge of TV, radio and newspaper ads.
Attacks on the Internet have gotten increasingly malicious, including one that compares Mayor Mufi Hannemann and other local politicians to Osama bin Laden and Nazis.
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As pro- and anti-rail forces push their agenda through aggressive TV, radio and newspaper ads, a nastier debate surrounding the city's proposed $4 billion rail transit system is raging on the Internet.
Since 2005 -- when Mayor Mufi Hannemann and the City Council started serious planning of the 20-mile system -- rail opponents created Web sites, such as honolulutraffic.com, blasting the project and promoting toll roads as better traffic solutions.
"The Internet expanded the way we communicate with people," Hannemann said. "But it can be a dangerous tool to spread misinformation."
More recently, Support Rail Transit, a pro-rail group backed by trade unions, pushed back with its own site and Internet campaign to stop a movement attempting to kill the project.
"On an issue like this, blogs can play an influential role," said Neal Milner, a political scientist with the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Councilman Nestor Garcia said in a recent interview that he has paid more attention to the blogs, including HawaiiReporter.com, where there has been a continuing debate between the city, including the mayor's closest aides, and anti-rail advocates.
Stop Rail Now, a nonprofit organization attempting to collect 45,000 signatures for a petition to create a ballot question on killing the system, has credited much of its success to the Internet. During the past two months, thousands of people have downloaded forms from its Web site and sent e-mails to supporters, organizers said. So far, the group said, it has collected about 35,000 signatures.
"The Internet has been critical to our success," said Stop Rail Now co-chairman Dennis Callan. "Our Web site, where people can download or print the petition, has produced amazing results. Most of our signatures have come in that way."
In a similar fashion, Support Rail Transit, a group formed by public relations firm McNeil Wilson Communications, recently posted a feature on its site that allows the public to download a form to rescind their signature.
In the most recent attack circulated via e-mail last weekend, a satirical illustration and text compared rail advocates to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and the Nazis. Hannemann administration officials said the e-mail "crosses the line."
The e-mail, with the subject line "People in Hawaii Are Too Stupid -- DON'T Let Them Vote on Rail," features a photo of Osama bin Laden with the message, "People of Oahu, you should NOT be allowed to make any big decisions in the ballot box. Only Mufi and his friends should decide."
The e-mail also included quotations from politicians that appeared in the local media.
Leaders of Stop Rail Now denied designing the illustration in the e-mail, which was sent from "Stop the Rail Project" with the domain name therailscam.com on Sunday night.
"This is disgusting," Callan said. "We have nothing to do with it."
Hannemann said: "To conjure up images of Osama bin Laden and to have the Nazi swastika -- what about all the people that lost their lives on 9/11?
"I'm a big boy. I'm thick skin. But I feel for those affected by these images."
City officials say they believe Eric Ryan, a graphic artist helping to coordinate Stop Rail Now, is the person behind the e-mail since his comments mirrored the illustration's message.
Ryan sent out a Stop Rail Now release Monday morning, saying, "Like Nazis, Communists and terrorists around the world, Mufi and the rest of these greedy insiders are scared of letting regular working people go into the privacy of a voting booth to make a decision."
Ryan denied sending and designing the e-mail. "It's both funny and poignant in what I read," Ryan said. "I can't imagine people being genuinely offended."
The Star-Bulletin sent an e-mail to the creator, who responded by saying it was a "satirical e-mail" on democracy, but the person declined to be publicly identified.