Racist Slurs Thrown at East Lansing Public Library Board by Zoombombers

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

When the East Lansing Public Library Board of Trustees held its first virtual meeting over Zoom last Wednesday, the online gathering was open to the public, as required by the state. The City of East Lansing announced the meeting and made information on how to attend available on its website.

Members of the public did attend – with some unidentified individuals joining with the specific goal of disrupting the meeting.

The phenomenon is known as “Zoombombing.” Disrupters join public meetings (often held on the video-chat platform Zoom) and use several tactics to annoy or terrorize the audience, sometimes resulting in organizations ending their meetings.

In March, Kalamazoo’s City Council meeting garnered attention for Zoombombing incident in which “bombers” sent comments filled with profanity and slurs.

At last Wednesday’s ELPS Board meeting, the trustees were trying to address emergency needs – discussing how to expand the library’s online holdings, the possibility of allowing curbside pickup in the future, and the problem of decreasing revenue, among other things.

But it became apparent that the meeting was under attack when someone drew a penis using the screensharing option. The board had enabled screensharing so that the public could see the agenda and follow along.

The meeting organizers quickly disabled screensharing, but the Zoombombers then turned to the text-chat option to continue their attack.

After one member of the public had inquired about the layoff of ten employees and how the library raised its revenue, someone using the pseudonym “Putin” posted in the chat window, “I don’t believe in this. I really don’t believe in what [an identified participant] said.”

Another individual identified only as “iPhone” threw in a racist epithet, following it up with the request to “stfu about funding.”

The disrupters did not use the video option – thus obscuring their appearance – and used only pseudonyms.

The ELPL Board of Trustees acted quickly to remove the Zoombombers.

Asked for comment, Library Director Kristin Shelley provided a lengthy statement to ELi, addressing the incident.

“The East Lansing Public Library Board of Trustees and library staff did the best we could to mitigate the hackers, while maintaining a public meeting,” said Shelley. “The offensive drawings and hateful, hurtful language absolutely were not the views of the Board or the staff.”

According to Shelley, the City of East Lansing staff and City Manager provided the library staff with tips on how to minimize Zoomboming since ELPL was one of the first departments to hold a public Zoom meeting.

Shelley explained that the staff had taken preemptive measures, such as muting and disabling the video of participants. Participants from the public were unmuted when they expressed interest in making a comment, notifying the organizers through the chat first.

Shelley emphasized that Zoombombing was not a problem specific to East Lansing, but something facing everyone trying to do online public meetings.

Some platforms seem to work better than others. The East Lansing Public Schools Board used a moderated session on Webex to hold their meeting last week, and it was conducted free of disruptions. Members of the public were able to speak and be heard briefly during the public comment period.

The library has lodged complaints with Zoom. Should they need to hold another virtual public meeting, the library board is considering other platforms and additional security measures.

In her comment, Library Director Kirstin Shelley called on Zoom to improve its security and for state and federal authorities to police this behavior, particularly by instituting penalties for disrupting public meetings (an idea that might not sit well with civil rights groups).

According to Mikell Frey, the City’s communication coordinator, “The City looked at Zoom and GoToMeeting as they were the top two recommended platforms for local municipalities by the Michigan Municipal League, with Zoom being their top-recommended platform due to its closed captioning capability.”

Frey told ELi that staff had communicated with ELPL staff before the meeting, even conducting practice runs.

The City of East Lansing is making plans for additional security measures and will make choices regarding platforms as more information becomes available.

City Council member Jessy Gregg said that, while the city’s efforts to stop Zoombombing were not completely successful, “I can say that the Downtown Management Board meeting [held Thursday, one day after the ELPL meeting] went much more smoothly, if there was troll infiltration I was totally unaware of it. I guess the good news is that we are learning.”

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Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article attributed the last quotation to Mikell Frey. It has been corrected to note that this remark came from Council member Jessy Gregg.

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