Online “hijackers” disrupt Flushing City Council meeting

FLUSHING — Flushing administration is taking steps to secure the city’s online public meetings after several individuals attempted to disrupt the Sept. 14 Flushing City Council meeting.

Since COVID-19 restrictions were put into place in the spring, Flushing City Council has been conducting telephonic/electronic meetings via Zoom. The set-up has enabled city council representatives to meet in-person at Flushing City Hall to conduct business, while allowing members of the public to participate in the meetings online or over the phone.

For months, the city council has been able to conduct the virtual meetings without any outside interference. But on Sept. 14, a few online “hijackers” interrupted the meeting with profanity, sexually charged comments and inappropriate images.

The disruption lasted on and off for nearly five minutes before city officials were able to lock out the hijackers and resume the meeting.

As councils and townships have switched to virtual meeting formats to meet COVID- 19 restrictions, some individuals have taken advantage of online meetings to spread inappropriate or racially charged comments. These incidents—also referred to as “Zoom bombing”—have taken place in several other municipalities across the state, including a Grosse Isle Township meeting in March and a Charlevoix City Council meeting in April.

In response to the Sept. 14 incident, Interim Flushing City Manager Clarence Goodlein said that city administration will be taking more precautions with its online meetings.

“To prevent future occurrences of Zoom bombing during Flushing City Council meetings, the Zoom Meeting Administrator/Moderator will place meeting participants into a Zoom Waiting Room and mute each participant’s audio,” he said. “This will require each participant to use Zoom Chat to request speaking time.”

According to federal law, Zoom bombing falls under the same penalties as disrupting an in-person meeting and can be punished with fines and/ or imprisonment. Perpetrators may face multiple charges, including disrupting a public meeting, computer intrusion, using a computer to commit a crime, hate crimes, fraud or transmitting threatening communications.