UW expert: More people likely to use hate speech in public meetings over Zoom

“There’s increasingly a willingness to engage in uncivil actions such as hate speech,” says University of Washington Associate Professor Nicholas Weber, who teaches at U-Dub’s Information School.

He has been studying the issue of Zoom and virtual platforms being used in public meetings and other arenas.

He admits that Zoom or platforms like it could be limited if problems continue.

“That’s the million-dollar question companies are trying to figure out as well as councils. It seems to me that there’s going to be some sort of hybrid environment into the future which will include some portion of a teleconference and some portion of an in-person meeting,” Weber said.

Weber says that people are far more willing to spout hate, and insults, or make vulgar gestures over Zoom than in person.

The Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) is a nonprofit organization that works with Washington local governments. The group has an entire article on the issue of hate speech and limiting virtual public comments:

  • Option 1: eliminate remote public comment -- some cities in other states are already doing this.
  • Option 2: limit public comment to items on the agenda -- this has been done in Tacoma.
  • Option 3: take steps to verify the identity of speakers commenting remotely.

Weber did stress that online video platforms that have been used since the height of the Pandemic have brought out a more diverse set of people to public comment periods at forums like city council meetings.

He also says there is an informality and relaxation that comes with those platforms that can lead to problems.

“Informality can be a really big advantage it can get people who otherwise would not come into a city council meeting and speak but it also comes with the other side of the coin that people are much more comfortable spewing toxic hate,” Weber said.