At its most recent meeting, the Sonoma City Council had to grapple with Zoom-bombing, ill-intentioned members of the public using Zoom to spew hate speech. Over 10 speakers Zoom-bombed the meeting, one of them claiming the Mayor’s home address as his own.
By law, public comment must be allowed at meetings subject to the Brown Act, which governs the conduct of elected officials. Up to and until the advent of Zoom, which gained widespread popularity during the pandemic, public comment was made in person. Now, using Zoom, people are using false names and addresses while making comments and using their allotted two or three minutes to make racial slurs, insults, and even threats. Public officials are scratching their heads about how to deal with it.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is one of many municipalities no longer permitting commentary using Zoom; all comments must be made in person. The City of Sonoma has elected to “cut off the mike” at the appearance of hate speech, but that also means having to listen to it, however briefly.
Given public meeting law, freedom of speech, and human nature, no single solution to solving the problem exists.
While all of us are capable of feeling loved and loving, there will always be some among us who are broken, and who foist their trauma, anger, disappointment, bigotry, and ugliness on others. That ugliness includes ugly words – hurtful, shaming, and sometimes scary. How to or if to respond is something we all may face, and so it is for elected officials. It’s a sad situation.
It’s easy to get mad about hate speech, but that often just makes matters worse. Ignoring it doesn’t help, and given that Zoom-bombing is a technology-based problem, some technology-based solutions need to be developed and deployed.
Zoom and similar take a leading role in solving the problem their technology has created.
Anyone using Zoom on their smartphone, computer or internet-capable device has what’s called an IP-Address (Internet Protocol Address), a block of numbers assigned to their device. A software patch to Zoom letting an administrator flag IP-Addresses and block those used for hate speech during meetings would help.
For many years, a time delay system has been used on public radio to prevent the broadcast of obscene language. Zoom should develop a time delay software patch that lets administrators have ten or fifteen seconds to screen comments for hate speech before they are heard publicly.
Zoom is a visual medium. Requiring commenters’ faces to appear on Zoom in order to make a comment is an easy solution in reducing hate speech by those too cowardly to let their faces be seen.
Zoom has been of great benefit to those who want to participate in the public meeting process. Traveling to Santa Rosa, for example, can take an hour from the City of Sonoma. Zoom has enabled those unable to travel easily, has reduced auto use, and has helped fulfill the vision of engaging the public.
Not allowing Zoom is akin to tossing out the baby with the bath water. What has to happen instead is upgrading Zoom (and other meeting technology) to keep up with how it is being used and abused in the real world.
We cannot let the haters subvert our democratic system to spew hate. The answer is not to get mad, but to get smart.