California cities ditching online comments due to surging hate speech

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LOS ANGELES – It all unraveled in the span of about six minutes.

The Calabasas City Council had just started its scheduled meeting on Oct. 25 and invited public comment on matters that were not on the agenda, both in person and via Zoom.

After those who physically attended the meeting had taken their turns, Mayor David Shapiro turned to the virtual waiting room.

The first speaker was “Jonathan G.”

“Hello, I’m Jon Greenblatt and I’m the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League,” the caller stated. “ADL has asked our friends and partners to join us as we push back against the virulent and increasing attacks targeting the Jewish community.”

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Two things became clear as the caller continued with his canned remarks.

The first was that council members were not actually hearing from Jonathan Greenblatt, who is the real CEO of the ADL. Instead, they were getting pranked by an AI-generated recording that mimicked his voice. Also, the caller’s aim was not to condemn antisemitism but rather to promote it.

This was the first disruption of the evening, but not the last.

Moments later, another caller using the name of a Nazi fighter pilot and claiming to live at 88 State Street asked the council to “make a statement or resolution condemning the terrible attacks by Israel against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

When the city manager intervened, the speaker used anti-Jewish and anti-Black slurs and was promptly cut off.

The number 88 is used by white supremacists to represent “Heil Hitler” as H is the eighth number in the alphabet.

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The “Zoom bombing” continued as several more callers disrupted the public comments portion of the agenda. The council did eventually move on to city business, but the mayor and council members had heard enough.

This would be the end of virtual participation for at least the remainder of the year.

“It’s just been an ongoing problem throughout the state and around the country. It’s nothing new. Unfortunately, it’s just progressively getting worse,” Mayor Shapiro told KTLA.

Many California cities are grappling with a surge in hate speech emanating from cyberspace at their council meetings, largely related to the war between Israel and Hamas.

San Bernardino, Ventura, Redwood City, El Cerrito and Moorpark have been targeted recently. Last month, Redwood City and El Cerrito also ditched real-time virtual comments due to racist and antisemitic disruptions, the Calabasas-based Acorn newspaper reported.

Zoom bombing, as the mayor points out, has been an unfortunate side effect of free speech for several years. Since the COVID pandemic forced most public meetings to go virtual, trolls have seized on anonymity to cause trouble.

City council meetings, school boards, teleconferences and online classrooms have proven to be frequent and easy targets.

What has changed, however, is these attacks are now utilizing artificial intelligence, and the frequency is increasing. Israel’s war with Hamas is the latest flash point.

For now, Mayor Shapiro says Calabasas has no choice but to limit public comment to those who are willing to show up at meetings in person – just as they did before the pandemic.

“It’s really an unfortunate consequence of the rapid antisemitic and racist hate speech that callers have exhibited and spread by using the city and county meetings as platforms,” he laments. “Calabasas will not be a platform for hate speech.”

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