Waldwick council candidates Anthony Paradiso (D) and Amy Weiner (D) are launching their first bid for public office, facing an incumbent Republican and newcomer Republican challenger for two open spaces on the council. Weiner is an accounting executive and CPA with two decades of experience. She also served as a treasurer for the YWCA Northern New Jersey and a director with Women for Progress. She is also Jewish and, if she wins, would be the first Jewish councilmember to serve in Waldwick. Paradiso has fifteen years of human resources experience on his resume, the founder and president of AllThingzAP. He also was the Bergen County Human Relations commissioner to promote tolerance and combat bigotry. Paradiso is married to his husband Vincent, and if elected, would be the first openly LGBT councilmember.
As is common in the age of COVID, the campaign hosted a virtual meet-and-greet inviting the public to talk with them and learn about their campaigns from the safety and comfort of their home computers or smartphones. However, with the new venues afforded by technology come new problems. It used to be that if a heckler or disruptive person got out of line in person, that person could be physically removed. But now, as Paradiso and Weiner themselves experienced, virtual trolls and hate-mongers can crash meetings anonymously from anywhere on the globe.
When their meet and greet was set up via Zoom, participants had to register to be a part. The meeting was also livestreamed on Facebook for people to watch on that platform as well. It wasn’t long before problems started from disruptive trolls in the audience, attempting to sabotage the session by posing as Zoom technicians.
Everybody knows that Zoom meetings can be a little chaotic and hard to manage, especially in the beginning. This is just a fact of 2020 life. But in that confusion can fester malcontents. “Anthony was letting people in and I was giving background on our platform,” Weiner said, “and someone came in and asked if they could ask a question. I couldn’t fully hear them, but apparently what they said was something along the lines of, ‘Do you support’ a racist slur. Anthony was interrupted.”
The situation would get worse. Within sixteen minutes and twenty five seconds the whole session was shut down, but in that time Paradiso and Weiner said trolls posing as Zoom technicians tried, unsuccessfully, to dupe them into giving them greater access over the meeting and eventually assailed the meeting with racist images and slurs. “There was a possibility that it was a young adult and I think there may have been more than one person,” Weiner said. “We think they switched their names showing up on Zoom saying they were Zoom support. I found out after the fact that it was them trying to get more access to share his screen.” Naturally, the individuals causing the problems were hidden behind a black screen with a only name.
“One of the names was definitely ‘Jason’, I assume that is not their real name, but that’s a name they used during the meet and greet. There were other names that didn’t make sense, but ‘Jason’ was the one asking the question,” Paradiso said. “Like Amy said, they were trying to make me give access. In the moment you don’t realize it, I was going to do it, but then said, wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense.”
The infiltrators said someone contacted Zoom to say they were being Zoom-hacked. Weiner said they were told do perform a certain task to prevent it from happening, but didn’t take the bait.
“This all happened within three minutes,” Paradiso said.
“Within a minute or two a swastika was being drawn on the screen,” Weiner said. “As a Jewish person I think that was very alarming, kind of scary and surreal. It, unfortunately, just went downhill from there. It was continual screaming, more racial slurs.”
“There was yelling, screaming, a lot of the N-word, and they kept saying ‘chicken’,” Paradiso added. “It was very disturbing when it happened.” They decided to terminate the session. “They already said terrible things as it was, who knows what would’ve come after that? We were not getting anything accomplished so we thought it was better to shut it down and reschedule one down the road. We were all shaken up by that.”
Paradiso said his husband encouraged him to check the video again after the fact. “I wasn’t going to look at [the video] again… [The person] sounded juvenile, spoke clear English. There were some Arabic terms being mentioned as well.”
The matter is being investigated by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
“In Bergen County they’ve had twenty plus cases like this and the Prosecutor’s Office has been working with Zoom,” Weiner said. “Maybe they might not find who they were, but they could make certain conclusions as to whether they were local or if they are from outside the US. It’s becoming more common that Zoom bombings are hitting municipal meetings, zone meetings, things like that.”
The incident highlights the difficult balancing act of having sessions open to the public while screening
out potential bad actors. Vetting is an issue that has yet to be fully resolved within teleconferencing. Even school sessions using virtual learning have been known to be hacked. “Most of those meetings are ones you want to keep secure but not to the point where people can’t get in. You want to make it easy for people to get in, so I think they’re trolling and looking for events that are less secure,” Paradiso said. “Council meetings, those are things where you want the public to come in. They’re going after ones like ours. You had to register before getting in, so I had to confirm them, but when you’re hosting and doing everything all at once, it is hard to check each person as they come in. I have definitely learned from this and our next one will be more secure.”
They said that another Zoom meeting will be scheduled for Waldwick residents soon. Teleconferencing is just one way of reaching out to the public, and Amy and Anthony have used other, more traditional ways to connecting with the public. None of which were met with this kind of disruption, however.
Paradiso acknowledged that the election was an extremely “tense” one nationally and that there had been some hateful incidents in Waldwick, but as far as Zoom hacking, this was the first they knew of in the area. “I’m not aware of it from surrounding towns from a political campaign standpoint,” Weiner said, “but I know there have been some local incidents of hate crimes. One of the more local ones was the vandalized Chinese restaurant in Wyckoff and a restaurant in Glen Rock.”
As technologies continue to evolve and the political realm adapts with it, strange and often unpredictable challenges will come with it. Politicians on the local level to the highest strata will need to find new ways to combat trolls and hackers, adding yet another burden to candidates and their staff trying to navigate the rough, difficult-to-control waters of cyberspace, where borders and location count for nothing.
Their campaign Facebook page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/AMYandANTHONY