Over the past month, virtual programming and video conferencing have replaced in-person classroom learning and public events. Frustrations with lack of equipment and technical difficulties were foreseeable, but a much uglier problem has emerged to become part of the new normal: Zoom bombing.
Zoom is one of the most popular platforms to hold meetings and classes, but it has become susceptible to hackers accessing programs in process in order to disrupt them, usually with profanity and slurs. While people using Twitter, Reddit and other sites have learned to expect the antics of online trolls, those who are only now adjusting to online culture are facing a somewhat “steep learning curve,” said Jennifer Sosnow, Israel programs admission director for Jewish National Fund.
JNF found out recently just how shocking such an incident could be.
Sosnow explained that because Alexander Muss High School in Israel is effectively closed, they had to shift classes and meetings online. They are also doing community calls using Zoom for anyone who wants Israel education. During the call, teachers in Israel are present to discuss different topics with the goal of teaching students how to talk intelligently about their Judaism and how to stand up to anti-Semitism on a college campus.
Initially, things went smoothly, but during a March 30 education call, with many teenagers and their parents in attendance, trolls were suddenly joining in and screaming the N-word repeatedly as well as other obscenities and displaying pornographic and violent images. Shocked at first, organizers shouted for the intruders to stop and hang up, but to no avail. As the only remedy, they closed the meeting.
“There’s no rationalizing with these people, so we ended the call. We didn’t know how much worse it would get,” Sosnow said.
Afterwards, she said, they wondered if they had been targeted as a Jewish group or if it was just a public meeting trolls had stumbled across. There was some question about who the offenders were and if they knew what the event was or had any understanding of the people they were menacing.
However, the Zoom bombing on the next call made it clear they were being targeted when people shouted things like, “Kill the Jews.” JNF had put in a security measure to check names of people signing on since many trolls had previously used clearly fake handles. However, they caught on and began hiding their identities by using Jewish surnames. JNF organizers also realized people chatting on the side of the call were saying violent and anti-Semitic things. Once again they were forced to end the class meeting.
Greater Boston’s chapter of National Conference of Synagogue Youth, a Jewish youth group, experienced a similar occurence during a Zoom webinar about anti-Semitism on March 24, when Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer appeared and pulled down his shirt revealing a swastika tattoo, reported Jewish News Syndicate. Two participants filed charges, and the Newton, Massachusetts police department said there is an ongoing investigation.
The ADL said that while “there has been limited online chatter among extremists about the specific strategy of abusing video-conferencing technology, Auernheimer’s recent actions in Massachusetts demonstrate the potential for extremists to exploit these systems,” reported JNS.
“It’s very clear to me that when a white supremacist like this jumps on a webinar and flashes a hate symbol, such as the swastika, he’s trying to intimidate the group, he’s trying to intimidate young Jews,” Ellie Cohanim, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, told JNS. “Our response to that is that we simply will not be intimidated.”
“It was crazy. We kind of knew it was going to happen. We had heard rumors,” Sosnow said of JNF’s experience. She reflected that as shaken as she was, “the teens were less shocked than the adults. They’re expecting it more than we are.” She said growing up she didn’t expect to experience anti-Semitism, but young people today live in a different world. “This was the first time a lot of adults and community members had this in their face,” Sosnow said.
The students aren’t novices.
“A lot of students see this kind of thing on campus, and we talk to them about how to confront it,” she said. Now the problem is that people are moving that anti-Semitism, racism and hatred for “the other” online. “It’s really eye-opening,” Sosnow said.
“We take the security of Zoom meetings seriously, and we are deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack,” a Zoom spokesperson told JNS. “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. 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.”
JNF had been posting the links for the classes on their social media sites so anyone could join. Unfortunately, in a world where trolling behavior is par for the course, they learned the hard way it is better to distribute the link information via more private methods, such as email. They continue to publicize meetings on their Facebook page.
They have also added the message on their website that they will prosecute anyone who commits this cybercrime to the full extent of the law.
Yeshiva University Zoom classes were also hit at the end of March, JNS reported. “Last night, I was Zoom bombed during my pre-Pesach talk with our student body as pictures of Nazis and other offensive material appeared throughout the scheduled time,” university president Ari Berman told JNS. “The experience highlighted to me how one’s true character is revealed during times of crisis.”
“Haters will hate, and a time of anxiety and pressure will bring that out even more. We respond, however, with love,” he continued. “Our goal is not simply to mute the hate, but is to add more goodness and kindness in this world.” JN