Imagine your child is in a Zoom meeting with their class. Maybe you’re at the sink washing dishes and your kid is sitting at the kitchen table, a stack of schoolwork beside the laptop, a box of crayons, a couple of pencils. They’re excited to see their classmates, and you’re relieved to get a break. But then suddenly you hear shouts coming from the computer, and strange, heavy breathing–an unintelligible mayhem has broken out. These are not the sounds of your child’s chaotic yet sweet online classroom. Your kid’s class has just been “Zoombombed,” and they’re all probably going to need some therapy now.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, just about everybody has heard of Zoom. Previously used almost exclusively for remote business meetings, the app’s name has since become such a staple of our present-day vernacular that the meaning of the word has changed. Zoom used to mean “to move or travel very quickly” or “to change smoothly from a long-shot to a close-up or vice versa.” Now it means “to video chat, often with more than one person.”
Almost as ubiquitous as the Zoom app is the knowledge that it has been infiltrated by a small but nauseating group of internet users who circumvent Zoom’s security settings and intrude on calls with the sole purpose of being douchebags. These trolls infiltrate calls ranging from classrooms to mental health seminars for no other reason to get their rocks off by being the scum of the earth. The hacks are sexually explicit (and often violent), racist, or anti-Semitic. This is Zoombombing.
A few examples of Zoombombing from the past several weeks: A middle school class in Georgia was infiltrated by a hacker calling himself “MoLester” who showed the kids hardcore, frightening pornography. A similar instance occurred in Utah with a group of 50 elementary students. An all-girls Jewish high school in Long Island was Zoombombed by a man who yelled “you f***ing Jews” and stripped naked. In Chicago, Zoombombers took over a mental health seminar for high school athletes and showed them pornography and a swastika.
These attacks are often specific and targeted. Ernest Crim, a high school teacher and Black Student Union advisor in Chicago told Scary Mommy, “We knew it was a targeted attack simply because, by calling us the n-word, they had to have known that we were a Black Student Union group.” The Zoombombers who infiltrated Crim’s Zoom meeting yelled to his students, “nail n*****s to a cross” and played pornography. “It was a horrifying experience,” said Mr. Crim. “No one of any age should be subjected to such hate, much less children.”
Zoom is aware of the problem and announced security updates a couple of weeks ago, like making waiting rooms the default on some accounts (so the host has to approve every meeting participant) and providing hosts easier access to tools to shut down attacks. But people have found a way to circumvent these protections, and their favorite platform to organize? Twitter. And they’re using methods that Twitter could easily clamp down on if they chose to.
An organization called ParentsTogether is challenging Twitter to take charge of the abuses that are being organized on the platform. Predators and would-be Zoombombers have been meeting on Twitter to plan and brag about Zoombombing. They instruct would-be Zoombombers what names to use to trick their way into locked meetings. They use hashtags like #zoomraid and #zoombomb to find each other and coordinate attacks. It would be easy for Twitter to ban these hashtags to prevent these disgusting people from finding each other.
Twitter hasn’t made any changes as of the writing of this article, but ParentsTogether has delivered a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to demand that he take responsibility for the abuse that is being allowed to fester on his platform. 9,000 parents from around the country have signed the letter, which requests that Twitter ban accounts that exist for the purpose of encouraging Zoombombing, ban hashtags such as #zoomraid and #zoombomb, have a risk-assessment team dedicated to controlling this type of abuse on the platform, and to institute a zero-tolerance policy for any organizing of racist or sexually inappropriate attacks against kids, families, or others on Twitter.
Justin Ruben, Co-Director of ParentsTogether, believes Twitter is enabling Zoombombing by choosing to do nothing. “This is an incredibly difficult time for kids and families,” he told Scary Mommy. “They have the right to feel safe as they connect to school or loved ones via Zoom and other video conference tools.”
I agree with Mr. Ruben. We live in a brave new world, and not just because of coronavirus. Every day on social media, regardless of which platform it is or what crisis we may be facing, we are forced to sift through a landfill of trash information and fake news. And now, on top of that, we also have to fend off trolls whose sole purpose is to incite chaos and add to the trauma that so many already feel. Social media platforms–all of them–need to be held accountable for the information they allow to spread like viruses across their feeds. It’s time we demand more of our social media platforms.
Mr. Crim, the high school teacher from Chicago, told Scary Mommy, “If they must expand their outreach and hire more people, I suggest that they do that. We have no idea what exposure to such graphic and explicit actions could have on our children long-term, especially as we continue to increase our reliance on digital spaces as a society moving forward.”
Here’s hoping Mr. Dorsey takes these threats to our children seriously and does something about it. After all, they’re germinating and expanding their audience on a platform that he created and has the power to modify. If he doesn’t make these few simple changes, none of which violate the rights or interfere with the experience of the average Twitter user, wouldn’t that make him at least partially culpable too?