Commentary: Racism and Zoom Bombing Is an Unfortunate New Thing

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The N-word was scrawled out on the share screen last Tuesday part of a wave of racist Zoom bombing attacks across the world as many turn to the teleconferencing platform to carry out their public meetings

As we race to accommodate a hopefully temporary shift in society from in-person to video meetings, one of the platforms that has exploded is Zoom.  There are a lot of advantages to the platform and, if done right, it could become a real asset to public meetings—even after life resumes.

But Zoom wasn’t originally designed for public meetings; it was used more inside companies where features like screen-sharing are an advantage, not a disadvantage.

Unfortunately there is a whole culture of Zoom bombers, far ahead of the hosts and public officials.  That was the unfortunate lesson that the Davis City Council learned when users took advantage of open share screens and scrawled, for instance, the N-word, or profanity, and in some cases pornographic images.

The city figured out that they could lock down the share screen, but they didn’t figure out how to screen public commenters who jumped in with the N-word, profanity and sexually graphic statements designed to shock and disrupt.

We are not alone.  The NY Times last week ran an article, noting that “the trolls of the internet are under quarantine, too, and they’re looking for Zooms to disrupt.

“They are jumping into public Zoom calls and using the platform’s screen-sharing feature to project graphic content to unwitting conference participants, forcing hosts to shut down their events.”

On Tuesday, the Times noted, “Chipotle was forced to end a public Zoom chat that the brand had co-hosted with the musician Lauv after one participant began broadcasting pornography to hundreds of attendees.”

Sexually graphic images are annoying and, of course, inappropriate.  The racism is flat out disturbing.

Yesterday, the social justice group Color of Change put out a petition, “Demand that Zoom immediately create a solution to protect its users from racist cyber attacks!

Dr. Dennis Johnson, an African American, first-generation college graduate from Chicago, on March 26 got to defend his dissertation for his doctorate in education at Long Beach State.

He notes, “Due to the social distancing during the Coronavirus pandemic, the University uses Zoom Video Conferencing for these types of presentations. The chair of my committee made the introductions and I started presenting. I spent the first 10 minutes gliding through my presentation. It was truly a moment I felt ready for.”

He noticed on his screen a “red mark on my computer.”

As he describes, “For a brief second I thought someone else was sharing their screen at the same time as mine, but then more red marks appeared. Soon, more marks were made to create the shape of a penis. I stopped my presentation and asked my zoom facilitator if they could remove the marks.”

It got worse.  Soon the letters N-I-G… were written on the screen, followed by pictures and videos of pornography.

He writes, “Like everyone else, I was shocked. My university’s technology personnel and college department members began to scramble. They were trying to figure out what was going on and how to take the cyberattacker out of the Zoom meeting.”

He apologized for what happened to the audience and continued with his presentation as though nothing had happened.

When he was done, his committee said, “Congratulations Dr. Dennis Johnson.”

Unfortunately, he said, “I couldn’t enjoy the moment.”

He writes, “Truth be told, no matter how much I brushed it off, my moment had been taken and there was nothing I could do about to get it back. On one of my most remarkable moments of my life, I was called a “n****r.” My mother, grandmother, sister, spouse and many others were shown images of pornography.”

On Zoom’s website, the only help offered is an article on “How to Keep the Party Crashers from Crashing Your Zoom Event.”

“That is a slap in the face to me,” he wrote.  “I’ve never been to a party where I was called a n****r. These are racist cyber attacks; not innocent party crashers just stopping by to say hey.”

He writes: “I never want anyone to experience what happened to me. Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. Over the past few weeks, Black people have been targeted disproportionately on Zoom by trolls who have yelled ‘n****r’ during children’s storytimes and professor’s open office hours. The University of Southern California even issued an email to professors warning them that Zoom classes had been disrupted by ‘racist and vile language.’”

Dr. Johnson writes: “It’s time for Zoom to create a real solution to this problem!”

Unfortunately this is becoming commonplace.

ABC News yesterday reported that the FBI is now warning of potential hijacks of videoconferencing applications.

They highlighted two incidents in Massachusetts.

“In late March 2020, a Massachusetts-based high school reported that while a teacher was conducting an online class using the teleconferencing software Zoom, an unidentified individual(s) dialed into the classroom. This individual yelled a profanity and then shouted the teacher’s home address in the middle of instruction,” a release from the Boston FBI Field Office said. “A second Massachusetts-based school reported a Zoom meeting being accessed by an unidentified individual.”

The statement continued, “In this incident, the individual was visible on the video camera and displayed swastika tattoos.”

BBC News in a story today highlighted a case where a rabbi and his Jewish congregation had their services interrupted, their account hijacked with anti-Semitic abuse.

A BBC employee happened to be attending the meeting at a London synagogue and it appears one person filled up the right-hand side of the screen with “vile abuse.”

“The rabbi didn’t realise what was going on until one of the congregants texted him. By then lots of people had taken their children offline,” the BBC was told.

“It was terrifying at what is a really terrifying time anyway,” the BBC employee added.

“Communities advertising meetings like this are exposing themselves to all kinds of risks,” said the BBC employee.

The synagogue’s rabbi described the incident as being an “intrusive violation,” and said it had been reported to the Community Security Trust and police.

“One of the founding ideals of our community is that we should welcome those who wish to join us for prayer, ” he said in a statement.

“We recognise that many Jewish households are not members of synagogues, or are members of communities that are not able to offer online services. We want to assure them that they are still welcome to pray and study with us.

“It is deeply upsetting that at such a difficult period we are faced with additional challenges like these. We will be keeping the security of our online provision under review through the weeks ahead.”

Zoom apparently told ABC News that people should report incidents on their website and they will take appropriate action.

“We take the security of Zoom meetings seriously and we are deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack. For those hosting large, public group meetings, we strongly encourage hosts to review their settings and confirm that only the host can share their screen,” a Zoom spokesperson said in a statement.

“For those hosting private meetings, password protections are on by default and we recommend that users keep those protections on to prevent uninvited users from joining,” the statement said.

But, let’s be honest, you have the FBI investigating some of these incidents in the states and the police are investigating in London.  But it is unclear what Zoom can do that law enforcement can’t do.

The general recommendation makes sense—adjust the settings so only the host can share their screen and create a password to prevent uninvited guests.

For the city council, if they choose to allow public comments, they might have a general invite to the public—where the public, if they wish to participate on Zoom as opposed to watching the streaming feed, will have to get a password from city staff.  That might avoid some of the problems.

In fairness to Zoom, again, their platform was not designed for this purpose and many have gravitated toward it because of restrictions due to coronavirus.

That said, they have definitely reaped a lot of benefit from this condition and, therefore, they have a responsibility now to protect their community.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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34 thoughts on “Commentary: Racism and Zoom Bombing Is an Unfortunate New Thing”

  1. Alan Miller

    “Communities advertising meetings like this are exposing themselves to all kinds of risks,” said the BBC employee.

    Ya THINK?!??!!

    The synagogue’s rabbi described the incident as being an “intrusive violation”, and said it had been reported to the Community Security Trust and police.

    Assuming a Zoom meeting is a sacred space like a synagogue, church or any other building, is wildly fooling themselves.  This is the I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T people.  Zoom is fine if you invite privately and know everyone, but once you invite the public, all bets are off.  And if you continue to use Zoom without changing your settings and strategy, nobody’s fault but your own.  And if you get Zoom bombed, you could say “lesson learned” and stop or change rather than complain its Zooms fault.  Zoom is like that turtle that gives a snake a ride across a river and gets bit:  “you knew I was a snake, etc”.  And Zoom is not the only game in town, plenty of other platforms to choose from, sheeple.

    The shock cocktail or profanity, pornograhpy and racist statements suggests the immature workings of bored computer-nerd 11-14 year-olds, not mature adult racists.  I doubt this is actual racism and more using racist terms and symbols to shock and feel powerful for a moment, and GET HEARD IN THE MEDIA, like an arsonist watching their fire from a nearby hill.  It is disturbing that at that age they don’t have the upbringing or sensitivity to understand how vile racism is and that it hurts people, and certainly questions the parenting skills of adults supposedly given the task of raising them.

    1. David Greenwald

      That seems a little too fatalistic.  There should be reasonable precautions done to prevent most of this.  These aren’t hack jobs, they are going for open access points and probably will avoid those meetings that it takes work to access.

      1. Alan Miller

        Yes, the hackers are showing what the problems are, and people can change the settings or use another platform.  Assuming you can suddenly bring your congregation on line and everything will be instantly peachy is a bit naive.

    2. Keith Olsen

      I doubt this is actual racism and more using racist terms and symbols to shock and feel powerful for a moment, and GET HEARD IN THE MEDIA

      I agree.

       

    3. Don Shor

      I doubt this is actual racism and more using racist terms and symbols to shock and feel powerful for a moment

      How does “using racist terms and symbols to shock” differ from “actual racism”?

      1. Alan Miller

        How does “using racist terms and symbols to shock” differ from “actual racism”?

        A person who discriminates, insults, uses violence against, those of another race vs. an 11-14 year-old computer nerd using an arsenal of extreme tools to shock.  Different in my book.

        1. Tia Will

          Just a junior racist in training in mine. The fact that they can justify racist commentary for their own purposes is in my mind demonstrative of racism in the making.

           

        2. Alan Miller

          Just a junior racist in training in mine. The fact that they can justify racist commentary for their own purposes is in my mind demonstrative of racism in the making.

          Possibly so, and probably not.  This goes completely against the idea of juvenile’s not having completely formed brains and therefore not having the same consequences for crimes as adults.  Many of these juveniles may mature out of the dumbsh*t youth phase.

      1. Alan Miller

        I’ve witnessed public insults aimed against Jews, and made the decision how to react to each by assessing if the person is a naive dumbsh*t, or an actual hater of Jews.  Intent and what is in a person’s heart is very important to me in this matter.  Every incident is not a red alert, arm all missiles, call the New York Times, alert the White House.

        1. Eric Gelber

          … if the person is a naive dumbsh*t, or an actual hater of Jews.  

          Someone paints a swastika on your front door, you going to be less concerned if it’s just some local high school kids? Today’s naive dumbsh*t is tomorrow’s actual hater.

        2. Alan Miller

          Someone paints a swastika on your front door, you going to be less concerned if it’s just some local high school kids?

          One of the criteria I would use in assessing a situation is the action taken.  That’s a pretty clear-cut action.

          Today’s naive dumbsh*t is tomorrow’s actual hater.

          Possibly so, and probably not.  This goes completely against the idea of juvenile’s not having completely formed brains and therefore not having the same consequences for crimes as adults.  Many of these juveniles may mature out of the dumbsh*t youth phase.

  2. Dianne C Tobias

    I have used Zoom in the past for many professional conferences.

    And did a knit zoom last week with a local group.

    Are these distasteful interruptions done from a general perspective (hacking into the Zoom platform) or was last week’s CC episode done by a local?

     

    1. David Greenwald

      Highly unlikely it was done by a local.  There are various groups where people post access points for Zoom meetings and plot disruption.

      1. Keith Olsen

        I was wondering too if they were local.  How does an outsider know that Davis is planning a Zoom city council meeting?  Is there a source where they can find all meetings planned?  I mean right now there has to be hundreds of thousands of these.

        1. David Greenwald

          I understand from someone that it gets posted on various social media sites and people are constantly searching for Zoom meetings to inflict their disruption on.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Hiram… might have been an interesting read, but your cite is on a site that requires removing ad-blocker or requiring ‘temporary’ subscription… so, not going there… been burned by abuses of such, a few times… consider taking quote from, then citing the source, where the ‘brave’ may verify…

  3. Ron Oertel

    I was shocked by the racist stuff, as well.

    But, when society “forbids” the use of a word, for example, you can be sure that some will then purposefully use it to get a reaction.

    Whenever I see a news story about some racist message, I wonder how often some kid (or group of kids) is behind it and is overjoyed with the reaction by the “grups” (to reference Star Trek, again).

    Certainly an easy way to get on the news. Regardless of its relative importance.

  4. Tia Will

    Alan,

    Mature brain or not, if either of my kids had been engaged in this type of activity, I would have imposed sanctions designed to hasten the maturation of those particular neurons. I would not have blown it off as kids will be kids.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I wonder where this guy’s parents were.  (The one filming, at least. Too late, for the actual attacker.)

      https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=racist+attack+against+asian+san+francisco&docid=608014124328028937&mid=B77A1E20980DAE19022EB77A1E20980DAE19022E&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

      Perhaps more to the point, I’m wondering where the “outrage” is, among those who claim to be concerned about racism. The same lack of concern I’ve witnessed in the past, by those who lay particular claim to being “liberal”. (Not necessarily you.)

    2. Bill Marshall

      Would those ‘sanctions’ have included involving law enforcement?  Reporting the activity?  After all, disrupting a public meeting has the potential of legal charges…

      As a parent, would first do the parental, counselling, ‘fear of god’ thing first… but if that didn’t stop the behavior, if I didn’t think “I got thru”, I’d have exposed them to law enforcement… but I’m just a mean SOB…

    3. Alan Miller

      Mature brain or not, if either of my kids had been engaged in this type of activity, I would have imposed sanctions designed to hasten the maturation of those particular neurons.

      As well you should, and I would be very surprised if your kids ever acted like that, because they would have been well raised in this regard.

      I would not have blown it off as kids will be kids.

      I didn’t say this was kids will be kids, how did you get that from what I said?  Their behavior is vile.  I also believe it may have been simply for shock value.  That that didn’t think better to not post the racist comments is of great concern, and I would very much doubt they were raised well in this regard.  But I’m saying there is hope for them, or they may grow out of this sort of behavior, maybe even grow up to not be racists.

  5. John Hobbs

    I won’t bother to log out and read Alan and Keiths predictable comments. I have in the past expressed my confusion at Davisite’s casual attitude about the many incident’s of race motivated vandalism that have occurred over the last few years. I am a trusting person so when someone old enough to drink coffee says something hateful and racist, I tag ’em as a racist. Queer that the commenters who are so quick to label homeless people as addicts and criminals are so quick to pull the kids being kids card.

    1. Alan Miller

      when someone old enough to drink coffee says something hateful and racist, I tag ’em as a racist

      So when a kid assaults an old person, knocks them over and takes their wallet, I tag them as a violent criminal who should be put in prison for as many years as a 40 year-old.  Same logic, right?

      Queer that the commenters who are so quick to label homeless people as addicts and criminals are so quick to pull the kids being kids card.

      Queer that you would twist my words to “kids being kids”, and were the second one to do so, even though I never said that.

  6. Keith Olsen

    I will give this article some credit, at least it didn’t compare what was most likely some kids acting stupidly writing racist terms on Zoom for the shock value to the Memphis and Chicago race riots or Nelson Mandela like today’s other article did.

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