Peaker plant hearing (copy)

More than 30 residents, environmentalists and local politicians gathered virtually Tuesday and endured almost an hour of Zoom bombing to voice their opposition to the renewal of a permit for a local "peaker" power plant in Pittsfield.

A recent public hearing began the way that many do nowadays: local advocates and politicos joined an open video call with state officials to discuss an important topic. Unfortunately, attendees had to endure an all-too-common obstacle that we must better repel: Zoom bombs.

Politicians and activists frustrated with DEP rules that allow business as usual for local 'peaker' plant

For the fortunately uninitiated, Zoom-bombing refers to nefarious and often anonymous intrusions into digital conferences, often held on Zoom or similar virtual meeting platforms, to attack a meeting and its attendees. In this recent case, during a forum on the state Department of Environmental Protection’s permitting process for a Pittsfield peaker power plant, perpetrators persistently hobbled the process by blasting “pornographic sounds and racist slurs into the hearing.” The phenomenon can take other, similarly vile forms, such as when a Zoom bomber hijacked a West Stockbridge Select Board meeting earlier this year to hurl racist words at an attendee and profanely threaten everyone.

It should go without saying that it is unacceptable in civil society, especially as it affects participatory democracy and good governance. At the recent peaker plant hearing, for instance, state Sen. Adams Hinds was forced to cut his testimony short, as the meeting couldn’t proceed for more than 10 minutes at a time without obscene interruption.

Any well-mannered person would agree this is an awful practice that should be stopped, but there doesn’t appear to be any agreement — or, worse, much consideration — as to how. To be clear, we are not blaming the DEP officials who hosted the peaker plant hearing, nor are we blaming municipal boards that are even more tech-strapped but have faced similar disruptions to public business. We have been and will be grappling with remote public meetings and hearings for some time. We are overdue for some broad standards and best defensive practices for COVID-era meetings that a technologically advanced state like Massachusetts is perfectly capable of developing and implementing to help state and local officials deal with this worrisome obstacle to decent democracy.

The peaker plant hearing and others blown up by Zoom bombs are evidence that open links to these meetings are trouble waiting to open. Meetings can be set up in such a way that one or more officials can moderate and control who can attend and when they can be seen and heard; that discretion available at in-person meetings should be the norm for remote meetings as well. All boards should follow the suit of others that have adopted the “webinar” Zoom format that makes this relatively simple. Further, boards might consider designating a tech-savvy moderator who is not the chair but can respond to the orders of the chair, who can lead meetings without the distracting task of playing digital traffic cop. Some panels also create a separate meeting link for public comments to cut down on the potential for confusion and chaos amid official discussion. This is a wise move, especially when considerable public comment or controversy is expected.

There are plenty of measures like these that are easy to implement and effectively weed out troublemakers and headaches. Stanford University has developed a helpful universal guide on combating Zoom bombers, which all regularly meeting officials should consult. Given the continued prevalence of remote meetings and their importance in the maintenance of democracy, the state should dedicate an agency to develop, recommend and assist with adoption of easy-to-follow protocols to help municipal and other governing groups defuse Zoom bombs.

To some, these measures might seem overly restrictive. We understand those worries in principal, but consider the deleterious effects already gnawing at open and functional democracy in practice here. At in-person meetings, police or sergeants-at-arms maintain order for the common good; it’s just as reasonable to judiciously employ the mute button and thoroughly screen participants to bring some much-needed order to remote meetings.

The toll exacted by these incidents on our democratic institutions’ legitimacy is too costly for all. Condemning Zoom bombers isn’t enough. We must put a stop to them, or at least do everything reasonably possible to limit the disruptive intrusion into where democracy resides and deserves defending.