Online SG president and comptroller debate interrupted by anonymous harassment

Despite disruption, moderators say the discussion was worthwhile

Online SG president and comptroller debate interrupted by anonymous harassment

Halfway through a debate hosted by AU College Democrats on April 8 between candidates for Student Government president and comptroller, the Zoom call used as the debate’s platform was disrupted by anonymous trolls sharing pornographic images and harassing messages. 

“The debate was going so well, discussions were being had and hard questions … were being asked of the candidates, and they were providing the answers,” said Julia Larkin, AU Dems president and the target of some of the harassing comments. “Now, all that’s being talked about is not the issues that we’re facing as students on campus, it’s this stupidity.”

“Zoom bombings” have become a common occurrence in the U.S. following the transition to online classes, Inside Higher Ed reported. This trolling strategy involves gaining admittance to Zoom meetings and disrupting them with inappropriate behavior or content. University classes seem to be primary targets, Inside Higher Ed noted. 

About 90 minutes into the debate, the discussion was interrupted when someone in the call began screen sharing pornographic images, Larkin said. The perpetrator was quickly removed from the call, but a few minutes later, four or five other accounts began posting harassing and disruptive comments in the chat. Moderators were unable to lock the call, as the app notified them that too many people were involved to make the change.

“All of a sudden … chaos just broke out in a chat section and that's when people started writing disparaging comments … about me and … about sexual violence,” Larkin said. “Around that same time, as we were trying to kick those people out of it, someone else started screening pornographic images again so we just decided to end the Zoom altogether.”

AU administrators later clarified to Larkin that locking a call should only be impossible with meetings over 300 people. It is unclear why the debate, which had about 80 attendees at its peak, was subject to this limitation. 

All of the candidates and a large number of viewers rejoined afterwards for a continued debate no longer sanctioned or moderated by AU Dems. 

“I commend a student, Leanna Faulk, who jumped in to moderate because students still wanted to hear from us,” said Joshua Dantzler, a candidate for president. Larkin added that she had intended to invalidate the Zoom meeting ID to prevent more trolls, but the number of people who rejoined prevented her from closing it. 

Candidates have responded on Facebook to the “Zoom bombing,” calling it unacceptable, yet unsurprising. 

AU Dems leadership, including Larkin, Vice President Emily Coneybeare and Campaigns Director Ian Malone, have called for the student body to not give the trolls the attention they seek by continuing to discuss the disruption. Instead, they ask that students and candidates follow through on their outrage and work to make campus a more inclusive and aware community, most immediately by concentrating on the substantive aspects of the debate. 

Before and after the disruption, candidates spoke in depth on a variety of topics. Internal SG issues such as transparency, communication and trust with the student body were discussed, as well as potential points of advocacy for SG members, like mental health, Title IX disputes, continued racism on campus and students’ financial concerns. 

“It’s really sad that we were having a really live spirited conversation about the future of AU and somebody who had nothing better to do just decided that they were going to crash the debate,” said Jacob Robbins, a candidate for comptroller. He expressed hope at the overall reaction of students to the incident.

Presidential candidate Jeremy Ward said he agreed with Larkin’s statements. 

“This isn’t a moment to talk about solidarity on Facebook posts ... when misogyny and sexist comments are made, where are you?” he said. “That’s very important when you’re running for leadership in AUSG. What are your platforms to deal with misogyny and sexism on campus?”

Larkin said she spoke with an official from the Center for Student Involvement, who said they planned to talk to the information technology department about the disruption. 

“American University officials are aware of this unfortunate incident and inappropriate behavior and are in the process of reviewing,” Stacie Burgess, director of public affairs, wrote in an email to The Eagle. 

Larkin said she hopes that those who attended the debate and saw the disruption don’t just act performatively against such mistreatment. 

“It’s very easy to write on Facebook and it’s very easy to be mad about a situation that was put right in front of your face,” she said. “But when you’re in class and you see a fellow student, who’s a man, mansplaining something to another female student, that’s your opportunity to stand up and do something about it. This isn’t just an isolated incident. Women on this campus face sexism from their fellow students and classmates all the time. It’s not fair.”

kcartelli@theeagleonline.com and dpapscun@theeagleonline.com 

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