White supremacists have harassed people through the video conferencing app Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic, part of a broader trend in which they exploit emerging online platforms to promote hate before companies can sufficiently adapt to their presence.
As with similar moments in recent history, like the widespread use of pseudonymous Twitter accounts to harass journalists, women and minorities during the 2016 presidential election, the goal of these loosely organized online campaigns is to scare up media coverage and project a false image of cultural dominance to outsiders. This current campaign, sometimes referred to as “zoombombing,” has been at least partially successful for white supremacists because of the degree to which it has generated news coverage from such mainstream outlets as The New York Times.
The following is a brief explanation about why white supremacists carry out campaigns of this nature and what types of patterns to anticipate in the future when similar stunts are attempted on vulnerable apps or platforms.
Exploiting emerging technology
Zoom’s popularity has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as coworkers, classmates and families have sought new ways to conference with one another at a time when officials are advising people to stay separated to help slow the spread of the virus. Zoom reported that 200 million people per day used their product during March, up from 10 million users per day in December. This means that: A) people who are inexperienced with Zoom are trying the product for the first time, and B) Zoom’s management has abruptly shifted to a position in which they are overseeing an explosive growth in new traffic.
White supremacists typically prey on tech companies who find themselves in fragile positions exactly like this, seeking to create havoc at times when managers are unprepared to stop them. One example of the way this has played out on Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic was during an April 3 meet-and-greet call that the New York Rangers hockey team hosted with 20-year-old defenseman K’Andre Miller. Miller is black, and he’s also an elite prospect playing a predominantly white sport. Trolls bombarded Zoom’s chat feature during what was supposed to be an exciting moment for Miller and his fans, peppering the player repeatedly with racial slurs. The Rangers ultimately decided to shut down the call. Later, the National Hockey League released a statement describing the Rangers’ Zoom call as being “hacked with racist, cowardly taunts.”
Before the issue of white supremacists infiltrating highly trafficked social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube became a national topic of discussion, posts on those sites were similarly targeted with coordinated barrages of slurs and other abuse. This occurred most notably during the 2016 election, when far-right forces unified online in defense of the anti-immigrant candidacy of Donald Trump. While white supremacists are still active on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, each of those companies have since taken small steps to mitigate organized harassment with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Zoombombing also calls to mind other news events from 2016: Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, an American neo-Nazi who is believed to be living somewhere in Eastern Europe, coordinated the mass publication of racist and antisemitic flyers on college campuses in April 2016 by exploiting a vulnerability he detected in fax machines positioned there. The Anti-Defamation League reported Auernheimer also flashed his swastika tattoo on a Zoom call hosted by a Jewish Community Center in March, during the COVID-19 pandemic, before unleashing an antisemitic rant on the participants.
Zoom has responded to the exploitation of their services by adding new security and privacy features, including passwords for meetings. It’s unclear whether or not these features will suffice in derailing future efforts to zoombomb, or if additional steps will be needed to limit organized harassment campaigns like the one that took place on the Zoom call with New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller.
Seeking disruption and press attention
Overt white supremacy is not a particularly popular lifestyle brand, although those who promote it often try to make it seem that way. One technique white supremacists employ to buoy a false image of cultural dominance is to disrupt the flow of society in such a way that it forces the public to pay attention to their hateful views. The most extreme version of this disruption occurs in the form of ideologically driven far-right terror attacks, which have claimed the lives of scores of people in the U.S. in recent years. These attacks, like the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in August 2019 that killed 22 people, can overtake the news cycle at an international level, sometimes driving public attention to the ideology of white supremacy for weeks at a time.
Internet harassment campaigns play out in a similar, if comparatively less horrific manner. Also in August 2019, hackers used the service Cloudhopper to text racial slurs from the Twitter account of Jack Dorsey, that social media giant’s CEO. The incident lasted only a matter of minutes, but the racist tweets were nevertheless jarring enough to Twitter’s userbase that The New York Times, The Washington Post and Reuters felt compelled to report on them, mostly seeking to explain how the hacking event occurred in the first place.
White supremacists, who have struggled to organize in recent months following a period of increased scrutiny from law enforcement, have also seen renewed attention through Zoombombing. The loosely organized campaign generated coverage in such high-traffic publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post and ESPN.com, among others. Although the story of Zoombombing has hardly managed to turn public attention away from a global pandemic that has produced more than two million cases of COVID-19 and well over 100,000 deaths worldwide as of mid-April, it has succeeded in reminding the public that white supremacists are capable of causing harm to unsuspecting people at any moment.
Bullying people during times of stress
While white supremacists often dress up their hate with pseudoscientific theories about race and sophomoric interpretations of philosophy, their motivation is ultimately defined by the desire to assert dominance over other people. In more precise words, they are bullies.
Bullies typically select vulnerable targets for their abuse. Few moments in recent history have generated culturewide feelings of vulnerability quite like the COVID-19 pandemic. It stands to reason that people who are frightened about the health and safety of family members, who are separated from human contact due to social distancing, or who are standing on tenuous economic ground due to the onset of a recession, are also that much more likely to feel intimidated when someone denigrates them over immutable characteristics like race, faith, gender or sexual identity.
Once again, the pattern is familiar to those who track the movement in a full-time capacity: Auernheimer was involved in a similar effort to bully people in a vulnerable state in August 2017, when he attempted to rally his fellow neo-Nazis to target with harassment the funeral of Heather Heyer, days after she had been murdered by a man named James Fields at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Similar tactics have been employed by the Westboro Baptist Church, which has made a trend of staging rallies at funerals. Their members wave signs broadcasting vulgar, anti-LGBTQ slogans in the direction of people trying to grieve the loss of loved ones.
Similarly, a suspect or suspects targeted with vandalism two synagogues in Huntsville, Alabama, in early April, at time when COVID-19 was claiming over a thousand lives per day nationwide. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on April 12 that police obtained surveillance video of a suspect spray painting antisemitic slurs and swastikas on the second of the two buildings, but have not yet identified that person. While there is no apparent connection between the Zoombombing incidents and those acts of vandalism in Huntsville, Alabama, the perpetrators of both chose to promote hate at a time when people are suffering from greater levels of stress due to an unprecedented global pandemic.
Photo illustration by SPLC. (Photo via iStockphoto)