Loyola University professor Badia Ahad was in the middle of a Zoom lecture on Octavia Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower, earlier this week when she heard a bunch of unfamiliar voices interrupting her.
“I just heard yelling that I was a horrible professor, that they hated this class,” Ahad said. “Within seconds the N-word was being scrawled across the screen.”
Freshman Chloe Clark then saw pornographic images pop up on the side of the meeting where her classmates faces should’ve been. “There were voices coming in and out saying disturbing things, putting up disturbing images.”
The class had been “Zoombombed.” Somehow, a group of people had entered and taken over, spewing racism and interrupting the safe space Ahad and her students were trying to preserve during extremely uncertain times.
Ahad quickly shut down the meeting and tried to compose herself.
“I was scared to be quite honest, because I had no idea what was going on,” she said.
As various aspects of society have shifted to online video platforms like Zoom for meetings and school during the COVID-19 shutdown, racist trolls have followed.
Universities across Illinois and the country have reported similar instances in their virtual classrooms, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, religious gatherings and public forums, including a news conference by Chicago public officials this week. People can gain access either through shared meeting IDs posted on social media or by randomly typing in numbers to see if a meeting pops up.
While Zoombombing is widespread, college professors like Ahad feel it’s just the latest iteration of an effort by far right activists and trolls to dismantle higher education and attack professors of color.
“This is just another path … that these trolls have found to terrorize us,” she said.
Jessie Daniels, a professor at Hunter College, which is part of the City University of New York, has studied racism on the internet for more than two decades. She calls these trolls “innovation opportunists.”
“White supremacists look for these opportunities in new technology to do these disruptive acts,” she said. “This is not surprising.”
Daniels said she called Zoom Friday morning to see how they’re helping users address Zoombombing. She was told by a customer service representative there wasn’t anything in their help manual to address that issue, and they were waiting to hear from a manager. In a statement to WBEZ, Zoom said they’ve recently changed the default settings for education to ensure that teachers are the only ones who can share screens and use waiting rooms so only approved people can enter a meeting. They’ve posted advice on their website.
Still, some of that advice is hard to use in large lecture classes with hundreds of students.
Some professors also say college administrators need to do more than provide enhanced security tips to faculty and students. Daniels said when far right groups have attacked higher education in the past, universities have hesitated to speak out, citing freedom of speech or academic freedom. She said those arguments don’t apply when people come to the conversation with a mission of disruption, rather than pursuing critical thinking and debate.
“[These debates are] not just something that’s created because of social media, and it’s not just something that happens on both sides of some intellectual debate,” Daniels said. “This is absolutely an orchestrated campaign to undermine higher ed, and we have to take it seriously.”
For instance, last week, the leader of the right wing college group called Turning Point USA, called on followers to document instances of quote “liberal indoctrination” by college professors in Zoom classes. This kind of messaging is seen as encouraging the kind of Zoom attacks like the one Ahad and other professors have endured.
In a statement, Loyola spokesperson Anna Rozenich said the university was “appalled” to hear about Professor Ahad’s experience.
“Upon learning of the attack, our immediate actions included senior administrators and IT staff offering Professor Ahad support and resources, launching an investigation and alerting the authorities,” Rozenich said.
Ahad says after the incident, she hesitated to continue Zoom classes. But her students said her class has been a needed distraction during this pandemic. Still, freshman Chloe Clark says the experience has had a lasting effect.
“I do get a little bit anxious,” she said. “You always think ‘Is this going to happen again?’ ”