A forum for Democratic lieutenant governor candidates was “Zoom bombed” with swastikas Wednesday evening, leading candidate Brenda Siegel to call for enhanced security at these forums.
The Essex County Democratic Committee hosted the videoconferenced forum, which was attended by candidates Siegel, an activist; Senate Majority Leader Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden; Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden; and Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray.
Siegel said that the meeting was first Zoom-bombed twice by individuals who drew swastikas, wrote “Hail Satan” and told Siegel and the host, Martha Allen, the chair of the Essex County Democratic Committee, to “shut up bitch.”
Siegel said that she has faced anti-Semitic harrassment in the past and it was important to call-out anti-Semitism, racism and attacks on other marginalized groups.
“There’s a rise of hate across this country and across the state,” she said. “We can’t just go forward without naming what happened, and as the Jewish candidate, I’m really shook, and that showed.”
Siegel said that virtual meetings need a registration system to track who is in attendance, a waiting room in Zoom, and a set of norms for what is and is not allowed established by impacted individuals.
“We have to do what we can to level the playing field, and part of that is being very intentional about how we create these forums, whether they are in person or online,” she said. “In the light of Covid, we have got to take online security measures, just like you would for any business.”
Ingram said she believed additional security measures are needed and the state party should provide training for event hosts.
“It’s disturbing to have these people say awful things, and feel like your event that has been planned has been taken over by these people who don’t belong and aren’t interested in doing anything constructive,” she said.
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Ingram said she believed the widespread publicization of the meeting link contributed to the hacking.
The Vermont Democratic Party shared the link on Facebook and Twitter, and the link was spread widely by the campaigns, she said.
“We should be careful about who we give the links to as well, how much we want to publicize these things,” she said. “We just need to take some precautions going forward.”
Ashe said that the Zoom-bombing was a “first-time error,” noting that the Senate has had over 100 Zoom sessions and committee meetings without incident after a Senate Committee on Agriculture meeting was interrupted by a hacker who screenshared porongraphic videos and reached into his pants before the meeting was disconnected.
“As long as login information only goes to participants, you’re good,” he said. “It’s not complicated. You could allow questions from viewers by text or email with the host moderating, instead of allowing open participation.”
Gray said the experience was disturbing and that the incident made it clear that campaign events needed to take security steps to ensure Vermonters can participate without fearing harassment or intimidation.
“This doesn’t represent Vermont,” she said. “We are a state that should be inclusive, should be diverse, should be welcoming. This type of behavior is not tolerated.”
Gray said she reported the incident to the state’s bias incident reporting system, which she worked to establish in her role as an assistant attorney general.
“I think we have to treat bias incidents like this in the same way we treat other incidents, treat them seriously and respond accordingly,” she said.
Allen said that the Zoom bombing was unfortunate.
“It’s one thing to do stupid Zoom bombs and say bad things, and draw stupid pictures,” she said, “but when you do hurtful, hateful things, It’s unfortunate. I’m sorry it upset Brenda.”
Allen said she is planning on implementing more security measures for the group’s next forum, which is with candidates for governor, including a waiting room on Zoom. She said she would be meeting with others more familiar with Zoom to get additional security advice.
She was trying to make the meeting as accessible as possible for Essex County Democrats, she said.
“Zoom bombing was not at the top of my consciousness, I’m afraid,” she said. “We’re all learning, and I did, I learned. This would be my mistake, not anybody else’s. I will take the blame, if there’s blame to pass around. I think people are getting Zoom-bombed a lot in spite of safety efforts, too.”
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Chris Di Mezzo, a spokesperson for the Vermont Democratic Party, said that the party condemned the actions of the hackers. He said the party was working with its partners across the state to ensure they have the tools and resources they need to continue operations online.
“We’re hoping in the coming days and weeks to have a more established resource for folks to visit to learn more about how to keep themselves and others safe,” he said.
John Walters contributed reporting
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