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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

First virtual Davis City Council meeting “zoombombed” with trolls broadcasting racial slurs, pornography

Technical difficulties, trolling prompt changes in procedure for future meetings, highlighting challenges of remote city leadership

In compliance with social distancing orders in the wake of COVID-19, the Davis City Council conducted its first virtual meeting over Zoom on March 25. Parts of the meeting were targeted by anonymous trolls who used the video conferencing app to broadcast pornographic images and racial slurs to attendees during public comment sections. 

The New York Times recently reported on this growing trend known as “Zoombombing.” As more and more organizations shift their meetings online, open Zoom meetings are being targeted by online trolls, who use the app’s features to project unwanted images or messages to the meeting’s participants. 

The Davis City Council was one among many organizations to fall victim to “zoombombing” trolls. The first virtual meeting began innocently enough, with some minor technical difficulties familiar to most who have used the app. Councilmember Lucas Frerich, for example, was initially inaudible during roll call, as were many individuals during public comment. 

During these public comment sections of the meeting, users present in the Zoom meeting could use the app’s “raise hand” feature to signal a desire to speak, which would add them to a virtual queue of public commenters. Individuals could also call in by phone to make comments. It was during this time that trolls first appeared, scrawling racial slurs and projecting graphic and explicit images on the shared screen. 

Recordings of the meeting were scrubbed of any explicit images or audio before the video was posted to the city website. Many of those present at the meeting, however, made note and took screencaps of the images and messages, including Davisite blogger Colin Walsh. In an article on the meeting, Walsh posted blurred versions of these screencaps and described how trolls used Zoom’s screensharing and annotation tools. 

“This feature was used to project hard-core pornography on the shared screen in the middle of the council meeting and an annotation feature was used to repeatedly scrawl racist messages, including the n-word, on the shared screen,” Walsh wrote. 

In the edited video posted on the city website, councilmembers can still be heard and seen reacting to these images and messages. When the first explicit writing and pictures began to appear, Lee referred to them as “kinks” in the presentation. 

“Obviously for those of you watching the Zoom, we’re experiencing a few kinks here in the video presentation, so if you just bear with us,” Lee said. 

In an attempt to prevent further disruption, the council removed the slideshow screen from the Zoom window. Trolls began using the call-in and hand-raise features in order to make audio comments, however, making lewd, racist, bizarre, and off-topic remarks,” according to Walsh.  

 Lee appeared to take most of the zoombombing in a stride, as staff muted trolls each time and moved onto the next commenter.

“I guess that’s what happens when the junior high school kids are out of school for several weeks — it gets a little boring,” Lee said. “I guess this is the next best thing to hanging out on the playground.”

The council took a 10-minute recess in an attempt to regain control of the public comments and filter out the trolls, with mixed success. During public comments on an emergency ordinance halting evictions in the city, trolls still seemed to outnumber those engaging in good-faith discussion.   

A second recess was taken after discussion of the emergency eviction ordinance. After returning, Lee announced that any further public comments must be emailed to the city council, after which staff members would read these comments aloud into the record. 

Some members of the public who later emailed comments into the meeting expressed displeasure with the switch in public comment format, however, with some even questioning the legality of this change to council procedure midway through a meeting. City Attorney Inder Khalsa said that she believed the changes were legal and sufficient to comply with Governor Gavin Newsom’s emergency order changes to the Brown Act.

“One requirement for teleconference meetings is that the public be able to participate in the meeting, and we’ve taken the position that submitting written comments during the meeting satisfies that requirement,”  Khalsa said. 

Lee closed the meeting by apologizing to attendees for both the changes to procedure and the trolling that occurred during the meeting, asserting that staff would focus on improving the remote public comment process by the next city council meeting on April 14.

Councilmember Will Arnold condemned the trolls, particularly those who engaged in racist speech and messaging. 

“Obviously, the racist rhetoric that was utilized by some folks — both in writing on our screen and verbally — has zero place in our public discourse,” Arnolds said. “I think all of us condemn that. The rest of it, which sort of falls in the bucket of shenanigans — while it’s sort of low-level, junior-high-esque humor — I think the mayor was correct in saying it still has no place in the public business. It did, today, make it more difficult for members of the public to comment.” 

Written by: Tim Lalonde — city@theaggie.org


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