Behind a Black Screen: How “Zoom-Bombing” has Disrupted our Ability to Connect Virtually

When students moved from college libraries to bedrooms and employees from cubicles at work to cramped desks beside kitchens after the coronavirus outbreak, no one knew what was to come. As a middle school math class in Aiken County began to log on and start learning virtually, pornography flashed on the screen. A hacker named “MoLester” “Zoom-bombed” the class, exposing a horrified teacher and impressionable students to unwanted and unwarranted nudity.  

The foundation of our routines have been profoundly disrupted: most in-person lectures and work meetings have been moved to the video conferencing platform Zoom. On March 15, nearly 600,000 people downloaded the app. The company is currently valued at $35 billion and CEO Eric Yuan has made over $4 billion in 3 months as usage of the software skyrocketed.

 However, the issue with the platform arises in the fact that Zoom was built as an enterprise technology tool, not a consumer social tool. This has made the platform extremely vulnerable to hacking and does not have as much of a hold on user behavior as other social platforms do.

Journalists Kara Swisher and Jessica Lessin hosted a Zoom event focused on the challenges women tech founders face. Instead of meeting with like-minded feminists and intellectually driven writers though, they were met with lesbian pornography video “2 Girls 1 Cup,” just 15 minutes after starting. Even though as an admin you can block certain accounts from sharing their screen without permission, “Zoom-bombers” strategically switch between different accounts to avoiding being blocked. Some individuals have rescheduled events to be audio-only because of this problem, but most virtual classrooms do not have this option because of the reliance on a screen to display lecture information. 

Color of Change, a civil rights group, has demanded that Zoom do more to prevent “Zoom-bombing,” after some of their meetings were inundated with racial slurs and hate speech. President of Color of Change Rashad Robinson says, “Black women are having a church gathering [on Zoom], and have people come in drawing genitalia and calling them the N-word.” The group has found evidence of organized “Zoom-bombing” campaigns on Twitter, Instagram, and 4chan (an online message board that the far-right often uses). Color of Change has demanded that Zoom take more responsibility for this issue by hiring a chief diversity officer to focus on how the technology affects minorities. They have even partnered with other advocacy groups, including the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Hispanic Media Coalition to advocate on behalf of all victims. 

The saddest part about being quarantined is that more and more people are becoming incredibly disillusioned and isolated. These zoom meetings and calls are some of the only times that friends, family, co-workers, and students can connect with one another. Feel a part of the greater community. Know that there is so much more that exists beyond one’s own isolation chamber. Why then are these extremists leveraging this new technology to bully people? Why are they trying to break down communities and wreak havoc online? Is it for attention: to finally be noticed? Is it to feel a part of a larger network: as an invisible, anonymous agent? 

What I found was somewhat surprising. Some kids are choosing to “Zoom-bomb” as an act of rebellion. In college, most lectures do not take attendance. So, many students who do not wish to use their tuition to learn, and would rather run around campus doing God knows what, can choose to. They are autonomous. However, for many colleges, attendance is taken for being present on Zoom. This has resulted in some antipathy amongst students, which explains the targeting. One clever Reddit user posted the meeting ID, password, and detailed instructions to infiltrate a class: “Use normal names then he will accept you, the class is biology.” No one wants to feel powerless, especially in a pandemic that already makes people incredibly uncertain about the future and the agency we currently possess. 

Another reason people become “Zoom-bombers” is for virality. I found a Reddit account called NelkFilmz that boasts: “A legitimate prank channel on YouTube. FULL SEND boys! No half senders.” The account posted a link to join a Discord server, in which people could contribute to the hacking campaigns. Despite the Department of Justice stating that such attacks classify as a state or federal offense, and are punishable by harsh fines and even imprisonment, many “Zoom-bombers” don’t seem to be stopping their efforts. Many Zoom raids end up on YouTube or TikTok, amassing millions of views. It’s for this reason that kids and teenagers are behind many of these inappropriate pranks. Ironically, these anonymous individuals desperately want attention. They want to provoke teachers they had grudges against and be validated for their efforts. “Raid her now. She’s a crazy SJW LGBT feminist,” said a Discord user asking someone to disrupt a Spanish class that was live at the time. Some students are just amused by the whole thing. One Reddit user who goes by HelloThere501 says that “Half the people think its an airstrike and half the people are against it because its immature. I fuckin think its funny lmao.” 

If there’s one thing these malicious campaigns teach us, it’s that people will always feel more comfortable being callous behind a screen. Whether it’s because someone wants to feel like they belong in a group, desperately gain attention and validation online, or desire to sabotage a hated teacher, this movement touches on the power of the Internet to not only bring us together during difficult times but to pit us against one another. It’s hard to tackle an army of black screens that don’t want to learn, but hopefully these young individuals realize that provoking people online only creates more barriers in a time where connection – if only online – is most needed. 

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