On Friday afternoon, the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) at the University of New Mexico announced they would not host a live presidential candidate forum online due to concerns about “Zoombombing.”
A week before, an undergraduate student government meeting was hit with a couple of zoombombs, including profane and racist language.
With public meetings transitioning to an online format as part of a far-reaching social distancing effort amidst the coronavirus pandemic, UNM and other public institutions have been forced to use video conferencing service platforms as a means to conduct the public’s business.
The widespread utilization of video conferencing platform Zoom — and the accompanying proliferation of Zoombombing — has raised questions about adherence to transparency laws in the age of COVID-19.
Zoombombing, a new type of internet trolling, occurs when an individual or a group of individuals use Zoom features to interrupt a meeting or class. Typically, the perpetrator uses the screen share function or bombards the chat section with vulgar words, sounds or messages.
Ryan Lindquist, student activities director and staff advisor to both student governments, expressed his concern about explicit content being introduced to the GPSA’s forum. He added that GPSA doesn’t have a Zoom subscription that allows for more controls during public meetings.
“(Instead,) we had to come up with a format that seems to have worked so that the candidates got their opportunity to give opening statements and answer questions that were asked by the election chair that were forwarded to him by students,” Lindquist said.
Melanie Majors, executive director of the transparency advocacy group New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, disagreed with the assertion that GPSA couldn’t allow for public comment with the software they had available.
“Shame on the University for not using the technology available to follow the letter and spirit of the law,” Majors said. “If a public entity wants to maintain the public’s trust and goodwill, they should allow for public comment.”
Majors said it sets a bad precedent to prevent graduate and professional students from asking questions in real time and noted that other public entities are working through the challenges that virtual meetings present in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Ethics Commission recently held a meeting where they muted all people on the call and permitted people to speak on an individual basis once they had indicated that they wanted to say something,” Majors said.
GPSA presidential candidates weigh-in
The last-minute change in the forum’s structure was greeted with conflicting levels of enthusiasm by the two GPSA presidential candidates on the ballot for the 2020-21 school year.
Presidential candidate and electrical engineering master’s student Naguru “Nikhil” Reddy said he was concerned about the decision to disallow real time interaction with constituents.
Reddy said that decision came from Lindquist “at the last moment.”
“It was really troubling, because when they asked us questions there was no follow up,” Reddy said. “The discussion was not complete. There was no opportunity to ask a question like ‘how are you going to do this?’”
According to Reddy, Lindquist announced the decision to prohibit live comments to both candidates and the GPSA elections staff right before the forum was scheduled to begin.
Andrea Abeita, the other GPSA Presidential candidate and language, literature and sociocultural studies PhD candidate, didn’t see it the same way.
“What they were really afraid of was having any sort of offensive materials that would have interrupted our presidential forum,” Abeita said. “I think (not having public comment) was (about) the safety and concerns for our students, and I think that was a great call.”
Abeita said she would love to see a live forum but said she didn’t think it was possible.
“I’d hate to stress out all of the amazing people in our IT department and everyone who is making sure we are able to run,” Abeita said.
Abeita explained that the recorded forum took over an hour and that the candidates answered questions about why the candidates were running for president, their top concerns and their job qualifications.
Abeita said if the technology was available she would be interested in participating in a live forum.
“I’m just asking for them to give us a chance and be patient,” said Abeita.
UNM Zoombombing incidents a rarity — so far
The gesture to notify constituents of their ability to participate in the forum came in the wake of at least two Zoombombing incidents that have occurred at UNM over the last few weeks, according to Lindquist.
“I’ve seen it happen twice… at the ASUNM meeting and at the forum that President Stokes put on,” Lindquist said. “That’s the problem with open content at Zoom meetings.”
Elisha Allen, director of academic technologies, confirmed there was a chat message that was posted at President Stokes virtual town hall on Friday March 27, 2020.
“There was a very short message that popped up at the start of the President’s Townhall… where somebody had posted a vulgar text message into the public chat,” Allen said.
Allen went on to explain that the setting to allow for public chats was inadvertently left on, thus allowing for the message to come through.
“The setting had intended to be off, somehow it was reverted once the meeting started and we quickly shut that down so that no further messages got posted after the initial one,” Allen said.
While responses to Zoombombing incidents have resulted in numerous national and local news stories about privacy issues, some have raised concerns about freedom of speech and the rights of constituents to fully vet those that are to be elected to represent them.
New Mexico State Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto told the Daily Lobo in an interview that “though the state Open Meetings Act doesn’t require public bodies to allow for real time public comment ... there is a clear custom and tradition to (allow it).”
The state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA), which was solidified in law over 40 years ago, is what’s known as a “sunshine law.”
“Sunshine laws generally require that public business be conducted in full public view, that the actions of public bodies be taken openly, and that the deliberations of public bodies be open to the public,” according to the New Mexico attorney general’s Open Meetings Act compliance guide.
Ivey-Soto went on to add that “there is case law in New Mexico that if you do allow public comment that you cannot restrict the content of what people are saying so long as it is done in a respectful manner.”
Zoom responds, UNM advises best practices
Zoombombing has become a concern at college campuses across the United States, but Allen said that the assumptions that college students are the perpetrators may not be true.
According to Allen, UNM Academic Technologies staff did a trace of the person who posted the disruptive message during the virtual town hall and “it traced back to an address in Ft. Wayne, Indiana,” Allen said.
“So, we don’t believe that that was a UNM community member,” Allen said.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, a Zoom spokesperson said the company was "deeply upset" about the recent Zoombombing attacks.
"For those hosting large, public group meetings, we strongly encourage hosts to change their settings so that only they can share their screen," the spokesperson said. "For those hosting private meetings, password protections are on by default, and we recommend that users keep those protections on to prevent uninvited users from joining."
The company encourages individuals to report incidents of this kind on its website.
According to Allen, UNM’s Zoom Pro subscription allows for the meeting host to vet those who are going to make comments to determine if they are members of the UNM community.
Meeting hosts also should be aware that internet trolls may take advantage of any unrestricted access they have to share screens or post in the chat area — those features should be locked, according to Allen.
“We have been working with the Board of Regents on their upcoming Board of Regents meeting on a process for public comment,” he said. “The idea would be that the Board of Regents would be able to do a preliminary vetting of the people who sign up for public comment and verify that they are people from our community who want to make a comment in the meeting and aren’t there to cause some public shame.”
Lindquist said the GPSA presidential forum held on Friday would be the only one for this election while advising students that they could reach out to the candidates directly with questions.
The GPSA presidential election is scheduled to take place from April 13 though the 16 via emailed ballots, according to GPSA’s website. Either Reddy or Abeita will replace outgoing president Muhammad Afzaal.
Andrew Gunn contributed reporting to this article.
Lissa Knudsen is a public health beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen