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The Zoom public meeting: Revealing, civically engaging, and sometimes appalling

Local government officials exposed, pressured via medium

New Hampshire state Representative Nicole Klein-Knight (bottom right) reacted to Representative Dick Marston referred to LGBTQ people as having "deviant sexuality" during a recent House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting.
New Hampshire state Representative Nicole Klein-Knight (bottom right) reacted to Representative Dick Marston referred to LGBTQ people as having "deviant sexuality" during a recent House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting.YouTube

Eight hours into a Zoom session of a New Hampshire legislative committee, decorum imploded.

The committee had been debating a bill that would bar an “LGBTQ panic defense” against manslaughter charges when a Manchester Republican described an imagined victim as having “some deviant sexuality.”

Loudly, repeatedly, the chairman banged the gavel, as Representative Dick Marston wondered aloud how he should have phrased it.

“Well, what is LGB . . . T?” Marston asked.

In her own Zoom cube, Representative Nicole Klein Knight let her jaw drop, slapped her cheeks with both hands, and emitted a disbelieving “WHA?” She maintains her over-the-top reaction was authentic — she wasn’t high — but she had popped a cannabidiol gummy on camera four hours earlier to demonstrate how safe prescription edibles are.

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Behold the Zoom public hearing — a very pandemic-era distraction that is at once revealing, civically engaging, and appalling. Politics has always been part performance art. But since public meetings have shifted online due to COVID, many official deliberations have been relocated from council chambers to bedroom chambers.

In those relaxed settings, public officials are using a new interface that seems to make them shed their inhibitions.

Research has long shown that people lose social restraint online, noted Judith Donath, a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The effect is most pronounced in chat rooms and tweets where unseen users can toss anonymous rhetorical bombs.

But it also occurs where they’re publicly identifiable on screen, where they sometimes engage people more harshly than in person.

“You’re still behind the screen. You’re not in the same room with them,” said Donath. “There’s still that sense that you could just disappear. Also — because the social cues are less subtle — people poke harder to get a reaction.”

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The amateur theatrics can produce absorbing dramedy, particularly for a captive audience in quasi-quarantine.

Take England’s Handforth Parish Council, a municipal body that might have remained unknown to the world but for a ridiculous February meeting filled with petty bickering, bureaucratic hijinks, and sudden ejections of the rudest members. After that reality show went viral, some 3,000 viewers tuned in for the next episode.

Zoom has been a boon for political participation, engaging all sorts of previously busy citizens in the workings of their local governments. In New Hampshire, for instance, a real-life legislative committee session would be held in a hearing room that accommodates only a handful of chairs, said Palana Belken, an advocate who was following Monday’s hearing from home. On Zoom, it can attract a broad audience and supply never-ending repeats instantly accessible on YouTube.

“Now you can go on YouTube and watch it live, watch it on demand, watch it later,” said Belken, a Rochester, N.H., city councilor who knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

For a local politician of limited renown, the gaffe made on Zoom can never be unseen. When another New Hampshire legislator briefly recessed a Zoom committee meeting to take a doctor’s call about her daughter, who was in the hospital, state Senator John Reagan was heard calling her a “bitch.” (He subsequently apologized.)

“These moments make it out. These would otherwise be lost,” said Belken. “People were getting away with this type of behavior for years . . . centuries.

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Not anymore. Those under-the-breath utterances are loud and clear on Zoom — and some politicians are being held accountable for them. In the background of a virtual Boston School Committee meeting in October, then-chairman Michael Loconto was heard listing, in a way that sounded disparaging, the ethnic names of constituents signed up to testify. He apologized but resigned amid public outrage. More recently, Massachusetts’ undersecretary for climate change, David Ismay, was pressured to resign after explaining to the Vermont Climate Council rather impolitically that efforts to halt climate change depend on persuading the average citizens to change their behavior. “That’s you,” he said. “We have to break your will, right?”

In the San Francisco area, every member of a school board resigned under pressure last month after trash-talking parents during a Zoom session they didn’t realize was airing publicly.

Hot mic incidents have been legion for years, of course, and occur in every medium. Last week, on a live cable access TV program in Lowell, school committee member Robert Hoey Jr. used an anti-Semitic slur, prompting his apology and resignation.

But Zoom has brought immediacy to public meetings that make the slings and arrows feel more personal, and its interactive feature invites members of the public to stage outrageous cameos.

As Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund presented information on a controversial natural gas project at a November school committee meeting, one Zoom participant gave him the finger. Hedlund later reminded the committee that Robert’s Rules of Order apply on Zoom, and noted that students were watching.

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“I think that was an improper light to demonstrate to them how the civic discourse should go,” Hedlund said in an interview.

At an evening Milton School Committee meeting in November, one woman called in slurring her words and professing her love for the superintendent, who is Black.

“I’m not racist,” she insisted, though no one had suggested she was. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

Racism has been a revealing subtext of many Zoom controversies, perhaps because a larger audience, increasingly attuned to microaggressions and discrimination, is on the lookout for them.

In Everett, the first and only Black female city councilor, Gerly Adrien, reaped an outpouring of public support after public pile-ons by her fellow councilors, some of whom urged her to step down if she wouldn’t attend meetings in person mid-pandemic. After the full council reverted to Zoom, Adrien faced criticism from Mayor Carlo DeMaria for smiling and laughing while he spoke.

“Looking off camera, having a conversation with someone else, rolling her eyes — it’s distracting. It’s disrespectful,” DeMaria told GBH. “It’s rude. And that’s it. It has nothing to do with the color of her skin.”

Adrien spoke out saying that she felt singled out for criticism and that her colleagues’ “antics” at those same Zoom meetings were seldom questioned. Everett City Council meetings often devolve into yelling matches; as one Zoom meeting dragged into the night, a weary councilor seemed to begin performing his ablutions, applying lotion to his arms, walking to bed, and turning out the light.

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Such casual behavior may be endemic now, as many work-from-home employees have been caged in Zoom’s virtual cubes for nearly a year, making them feel simultaneously cloistered and overexposed. If people behave differently or badly on Zoom — well, that makes sense to Donath, who studies how new technologies transform the social world.

Still, she noted, the mishaps can’t all be blamed on the new interface. Our sudden reliance on Zoom comes at the same time we’re facing significant social stressors — the high-stakes anxieties of a relentless pandemic, a vitriolic political moment, and the edgy reactivity of cancel culture.

“There’s an enormous number of ways that people can get themselves into trouble,” Donath said, “and they’re using a medium in which they’re much more likely to do so.”


An earlier version of this story had the incorrect name of the public media organization GBH.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.