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Let’s call 'Zoom bombing' what it is: digital terrorism

Mala Muñoz April 14th, 2020
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Note: This article contains sexually explicit descriptions and racial harassment that may be triggering to some readers.

It’s Thursday, March 26, Day 14 of my self-quarantine. Instead of visiting family or getting away for spring break, the entire state of California is sheltering at home in the midst of a global pandemic. I RSVP for a Zoom workshop, “How to Write Pitches that Editors Will Accept,” led by The New York Times Magazine contributor, Jamie Keisler. About 20 minutes into the workshop, a man turns his mic on and starts singing loudly about smelling women’s genitals. The workshop has suddenly, creepily, been overtaken by several attackers, all of whom appear to be young white men. After what seems like an eternity, the attackers start to screen share pornography and the call has to be ended. A new meeting link is sent out so the workshop can continue for those who weren’t too grossed out by the invasive, sexually explicit thing that has just happened. Within minutes of posting what I’d witnessed to Instagram, women send me direct messages to share their experiences with “Zoom bombing” in their own transitions to life online.  

In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic,  Zoom bombing is on the rise as white supremacists launch sexually and racially abusive campaigns against women of color on the platform. I had never heard of Zoom bombing until it happened to me, and as a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence, with a professional background working on the Emergency Response Team as a rape crisis counselor-advocate at Peace Over Violence, the feeling of violation that washed over me was difficult to shake. I learned that I wasn’t alone in what I had experienced or how it made me feel. 

Jackie Wong, vice president of policy and advocacy at GRACE Inc., was facilitating a publicly advertised Zoom session to discuss allocating resources from the COVID-19 federal stimulus package for children living in poverty with speakers Dolores Huerta and Rep. Karen Bass. Their call was also Zoom bombed by a digital terrorist on the same day as my workshop. Wong, one of two administrators on the Zoom call, did what she could to figure out who the intruder was when he yelled over Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, before he eventually pulled down his pants and showed participants his bare bottom via screen share.  

“It is a violation,” says Wong. “As someone who is a survivor, it’s heavy. Being responsible for finding the attacker. It was very triggering to me. Every Zoom call, is this gonna be something I have to look out for?”

When I asked Wong if she thought this Zoom bomb was targeted, she responded without hesitation, “Yes. Our executive director, a white male, spoke uninterrupted for about 30 minutes before the Zoom bomb happened. This person waited until Representative Bass started talking to attack. Dolores Huerta and Representative Bass were the headliners for the event.”

From rising rates of domestic violence enabled by a shutdown of shelters, services, and social connection to the lack of safe online spaces due to a long history of trolls doxxing journalists and people of color to this, Zoom bombing, it is imperative that we call these behaviors what they are: rape culture, white supremacy, and digital terrorism. Self-isolation is leaving us with fewer and fewer safe spaces where we can learn, work, and connect with our communities. Long-term isolation and nationwide shutdowns of public space also enable incels, white supremacists, and trolls in general to take advantage of the tech industry’s history of negligence and apologism for digital terrorism to wreak as much havoc as possible on communities that have now been ordered to stay indoors for our own health and well-being.

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Collective user complaints to Zoom have yielded lukewarm results. An email from the platform details security measures like default digital waiting rooms and default password enabled meetings which were implemented starting April 5. However, this sort of security update appears cosmetic at best, and doesn’t mesh well with the needs of large video conference meetings for public information and large distance learning classes. An April 1 post shared to the Zoom blog details some of the steps the platform has taken to address user concerns, update the platform’s privacy policy, and answer user questions about encryption on the platform. Only time will tell if these steps will be enough to protect millions of vulnerable users from future acts of digital terrorism. Most recently, Zoom Founder and CEO Eric Yuan admitted he had never thought “seriously” about online harassment before Zoom bombing made the news.

Zoom’s slow move to implement proper safety measures to what is becoming a scourge on the platform is earning the company a reputation as a site of unbridled rape culture. This is a considerable problem, as the platform has enjoyed a 535% increase in daily visits to the Zoom download page in the last month alone. Kimberly Fuentes, the director of policy and communications at the League of United Latin American Citizens, pointed out that many of the cautionary “How To Protect Your Call From Zoom Bombing” lists that have popped up in recent weeks put the burden on users to limit call participation and prevent attacks. For broad based public services and campaigns, those types of controls make online organizing and resource sharing inaccessible to target populations. Expecting teachers, organizers, activists, students, and workers to shoulder the responsibility for moderating safe digital spaces on a demonstrably violent internet in the midst of our increasingly online, at-home reality is abusive, impractical, and not at all sustainable.

According to Fuentes, “This hinders our ability to be as approachable and community oriented as we would like to be…These internet hackers provide yet another obstacle to getting work done at a time when what we need most is to connect with others. I know that some individuals have also been Zoom bombed with racist taunts, pornography, and profanity. I feel that individuals and organizations will hesitate from making meetings like these available to the public.”

We’re seeing before our eyes how few systems we have in place to connect vulnerable populations with much needed resources like public health information, education, and emergency services in times of crisis. We are now heavily reliant on digital platforms like Zoom in spite of the fact that the platform has been under FBI investigation since March 30 and has been described as a “privacy disaster” and “fundamentally corrupt” by tech experts who point out that Zoom routinely utilizes malware techniques to compromise user privacy and safety.

Now is the time for us to raise our standards and expectations for tech, Silicon Valley, and our state and federal lawmakers. It is imperative that we focus our technology development to build platforms informed by our collective knowledge of sexual violence, ableism, racism, and the ways that they wreak havoc in the digital space. If we are to be successful in our efforts to educate, work, and thrive now and in an uncertain future, we must create platforms resistant to digital terrorism with survivor focused features and built in protections for marginalized communities.


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