Since the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global pandemic in March, the world has transitioned into a virtual society. Family gatherings, lectures, cultural celebrations, music festivals and even the United Kingdom’s Royal Chelsea Flower Show are now experienced through a screen.
Despite the easing of lockdowns across the world, many businesses continue to operate largely online. However, this new business model has exposed two sinister realities: that cyber attackers are disproportionately targeting people of colour during this pandemic; and that many employers, across the world, are unprepared to deal with racism in the virtual workspace.
Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, the United States’s largest online racial justice organisation, which has lobbied social media companies to address civil rights violations on their platforms, says the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community faces “immediate danger” when working on the video call platform Zoom.
“In the United States, particularly, there is a history of Black people having their community events disrupted: in recent memory white nationalists have shot up Black churches,” Robinson explained. “Now, our Zoom gatherings are being targeted. Technology is supposed to bring us to the future, but instead it’s dragging us to the past.”
‘A coordinated effort to terrorise’
Zoom, which has 300 million daily meeting participants using its cloud-based software during the pandemic, has been criticised for its data privacy and security measures. Reports that its platform vulnerabilities, which would allow someone to hack users and spy on their calls, are being sold on the Dark Web for up to $500,000, and that the FBI is investigating cases of organised video hijacks known as Zoom “bombings” or “raids” provoked the tech giant to focus on security in its recent update. But while Zoom has tightened its security measures, cyber hackers are still actively searching for loopholes to specifically target BAME communities online.
Al Jazeera has uncovered several threads on 4chan, a controversial online forum sometimes used by far-right groups, which are organising or have organised Zoom raids on minority communities. The threads include evidence of plans to hijack a Ramadan virtual dinner, a church gathering, lectures and work calls. They show users telling others to “just be openly racist on the next Zoom meeting”, asking for “Screen captures of pornography, gore and other interruptive things”, and encouraging “jacking off” on screen or using the N-word in meetings.
Robinson explained that “these are not pranks, but a coordinated effort to terrorise marginalised groups who are disproportionately targeted online”.
“Color of Change have been contacted by at least 15 groups who have had their gatherings hijacked,” he added.
Dozens of Twitter users have also documented being Zoom bombed by racist groups while working. One shared a video of a hacker writing the N-word and drawing swastikas on the screen during a Black television writing course on Zoom. Another said her work event, which invited speakers from White Coats for Black Lives, an organisation of BAME medical students tackling racism within the US’s healthcare system, was hijacked. A virtual casting call for Black actors, a meeting between minority students and lecturers to discuss racism in universities, and online talks about the aftermath of George Floyd’s death were also allegedly targeted on Zoom.
Protecting workers online
Lydia Amoah, a diversity specialist, business coach and author of the Black Pound Report, which highlights the economic contributions of Black Britons to the British economy, was a target of a racially-motivated cyber attack during a webinar with 100 of her colleagues, clients and industry experts in April.
“All of a sudden [the hackers] took control of the meeting. They showed dismembered hacked-up bodies, and continuously targeted me, calling me the ‘N-word’, saying my house ‘looks like a crack house’,” she recounted.
“I felt sick for five days after the attack. I felt so unsafe online, where I have no choice but to work. I felt that I’d been completely disarmed and humiliated. Even now I feel hot [and] defenceless, they could see me but I couldn’t see them.”
In the UK, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that Black people are more than four times more likely to die from the coronavirus than their white counterparts. For those who can work from home, it has become a form of self-defence, and yet BAME communities are still at risk of being harmed online.
Amoah believes her employers were unprepared for such an incident. “Our host panicked and ended the call. Then everyone just got back online and continued – I tried to act fine but I wasn’t really present. They weren’t prepared for this kind of hate-hacking. That’s why I want to create a brand new policy that helps companies fulfil their online duty of care.”
Amoah is now advising businesses and other companies on how to deal with racism in the virtual workspace. Her new policy, the STOPIT Protocol, offers businesses a step-by-step guide to protecting workers online, and has already been implemented by some UK charities and organisations.
A breeding ground for racism
Historically, the internet has served as a breeding ground for racist rhetoric and alt-right groups who are able to hide in corners of the dark net, behind a clear browsing data shield and the veil of a screen.
Robinson says that despite the fact that the symbiotic relationship between racism and the internet is common knowledge, tech companies are still unprepared for racist hijacks.
“I mean, Zoom refers to racist 4chan users as harmless ‘party crashers’, [language it has since apologised for and changed] it just shows they never imagined gatherings would be interrupted – companies don’t have Black experiences or world views because they don’t diversify their workforce.”
Zoom has recently hired Damien Hooper-Campbell as its first Chief Diversity Officer. Before this, the role did not exist.
Yomi Sode is a London-based poet and writer who became the target of cyber abuse during a Zoom meeting in April, which was celebrating the launch of a magazine he contributes to.
“The hackers probably knew it would be a space for non-whites … It was hacking I’ve never seen in my life before, they were dropping the N-bomb, singing songs with the N-word in it,” he explained.
“All eyes were on the host. [He] was relatively new and this was a new experience. But it was a 20-minute process trying to mute or remove them, and in that time more hackers were coming in … Employers and event organisers have a responsibility and a duty of care. They should know how to safeguard from hackers and trolls.”
During the COVID-19 outbreak, members of AA meetings, religious gatherings and social events have also spoken out about being targeted by racially-motivated Zoom bombings. Civil rights collective, the Daughters of the Movement, which includes daughters of some of the most prominent contributors to the civil rights movement in the US, had an online gathering hijacked by several white men who were masturbating and shouting racist slurs at the women attending.
Since this article was first published, Zoom has responded. “We have been deeply upset to hear about these types of incidents, and Zoom strongly condemns such behavior,” the company wrote.
“We have recently updated a number of default settings and added features to help hosts more easily access in-meeting security controls, including controlling screen sharing, removing and reporting participants, and locking meetings, among other actions. We have also been educating users on security best practices for setting up their meetings, including recommending that users avoid sharing private meeting links and passwords publicly on websites, social media, or other public forums, and encouraging anyone hosting large-scale or public events to utilize Zoom’s webinar solution.
“We are committed to maintaining an equal, respectful and inclusive online environment for all our users. We take meeting disruptions extremely seriously and where appropriate, we work closely with law enforcement authorities. We encourage users to report any incidents of this kind to Zoom and law enforcement authorities so the appropriate action can be taken against offenders.”
Color of Change has also been in contact with Zoom and have asked the company to release a specific plan to combat racial harassment on the platform and apologise to targets of Zoom bombings.
Lydia believes responsibility also lies with employers who have not taken measures to protect minorities in the virtual workspace. “The company was not ready to deal with hate hacking. I’ve experienced racist microaggressions in the workplace that weren’t dealt with properly, but I never experienced anything like this … there needs to be better aftercare.”
“The first step is sharing our stories, the next is for companies to start implementing real and lasting policies that will protect all of their users.”