What Is ‘Zoom Bombing’ And What Do I Do If It Happens To Me?

Whether you’re catching up with friends, pretending to pay attention in online tutorials or attending a lit af virtual club night, we’re all using Zoom to recreate life before the Covid-19 pandemic.

What was once a video conference app purely made for suit and tie wearing business folks with their fancy ass business meetings, now facilitates online classes, Dungeons and Dragons sessions, virtual club quarantine nights and so much more.

People are getting creative with their Zoom backgrounds, imagining themselves in a Studio Ghibli film, on their dream holiday (same thing really) or, my personal favourite, turning my green shirt into a collage of clown emojis because I really am Boo Boo the Fool.

But, unfortunately, the internet sometimes can be a cursed place. While most of us are having fun on the app, some are trying to ruin it, with a terrifying new trend called Zoom Bombing. 

What is Zoom Bombing?

In the era of Covid-19 and social distancing, Zoom Bombing is not just the new version of photobombing but, in some cases, a scary new means of cyberbullying and indecent exposure.

Essentially, Zoom Bombing is when someone ‘breaks into’ your Zoom meeting without being given permission by the host. In best cases, these Zoom Bombers join and bombard a group with memes or something harmless, but at its worst and more often the case, people in these calls are met with unsolicited nude material, xenophobic, misogynistic or homophobic comments and having their social hangout become an unsafe environment.

According to The New York Times, some Zoom Bombers have used the app’s custom background feature to display a GIF of people drinking in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, write racist messages in a meeting of the American Jewish Committee in Paris using the app’s annotate feature. In others, users are unsolicitedly screening themselves performing sexual acts.

It’s some nasty stuff. 

In fact, it’s such a big deal that, according to The Guardian, Singapore has even banned teachers from using the application after a number of cases of online classes interrupted by pornographic imagery. 

How are people doing it?

Zoom calls require a meeting room ID and password to function. To join a call, you need either the ID and password or a link provided by the host. 

People are bombing zoom calls by either finding the password or link online, or, in extreme cases, trying passwords until they can get in. As the same NYT article reports, there are a number of message boards on the internet where “thousands of people [are] gathering to organise Zoom harassment campaigns, sharing meeting passwords and plans for sowing chaos in public and private meetings.”

In response, Facebook told the outlet they’re blocking hashtags used to coordinate Zoom Bombings and removing accounts that were made to facilitate Zoom Bombing. But, ofc, that’s only for the accounts they find. 

What’s it like to be zoom bombed?

On Friday night, my friend and resident Animal Crossing islander Michael Phillips was in a local Aussie DJ queer quarantine club call on Zoom. 

As he tells me, “there were about 20 minutes left in the three hour long club, and there were approximately 15 of them left.” They were all dancing and vibing to Charli XCX and other PC music, and then it happened. Someone broke into the call, fixed their webcam on their genitals and, well, “casually masturbated for everyone to see.”

“One of the other participants asked, ‘so… is no one going to talk about the guy masturbating?’,” he recalls. “[It was then] we started realising that we had an intruder.”

“I was definitely shocked, like, ‘oh my god, who actually does this shit?’ I started making jokes about them [in the chat] hoping they’d leave.”

After about a minute of this going on, the host was able to kick them from the group. Alas, it was too late. Horrifyingly, the masked singer had done his crime. As one comment in the call reads, “omg, he nutted.”

How is Zoom responding to it?

Since people have started bombing other Zoom calls, the company has announced a few new initiatives to help combat it. Through a recent update, all meetings now have a password by default, as well as a more accessible security toolbar you can access quickly and a catalogue of tutorials teaching you how to protect yourself.  

But, perhaps more controversially, the company announced that they’re tinkering their AI so that it can detect anyone who’s nude on camera or sharing anything not safe for work and ban them. It’s an effective tool to stop the Zoom Bombers like Phillips experienced who are flashing their nude bodies to participants in a call, but as some like Dazed have pointed out, also invalidates people who are consensually using the app to connect with their partners from afar. 

What can you do to protect yourself from it?

Ultimately, if you’re the host, there’s a few things you can do to protect you and your friends from being Zoom Bombed.

First of all, set a meeting password that only you and your friends would know. Maybe an inside joke, a callback to one of your favourite RuPaul’s Drag Race moments (“B@CK_R0LLZ???”), High School Musical memes for High School Musical teens, or simply, “stream Frank Ocean’s “Dear April.”” Whatever it is, make sure it’s made up of a mixture of numbers and letters, srsly folks, websites don’t just give you that prompt when making a new password for no reason.

From there, make sure you enable and create a waiting room. As the host, this’ll make sure you can decide who can join the group even if they have the meeting password or link. This may be a bit difficult to manage in calls that feature big groups and people you don’t know, like a virtual dance party, so use at your own discretion.

If you’re especially worried someone might pop up and engage in indecent exposure or non-consensually screen share something inappropriate, turn off screen sharing for everyone except the host.

If you’re not the host, do not under any circumstances share the link around to anyone else except people who are supposed to be in the chat. Sharing your tutorial link on Twitter merely invites all kinds of strangers into your private meeting, making everyone else in the group uncomfortable and disrupting a good time. Don’t do it fam. 

What to do if you experience it?

If you do experience a Zoom Bomber, quickly and calmly remove them from the chat, and check in with everyone. Make sure to disable people from being able to re-enter the chat through the meeting room settings, and, most importantly, change the password.

If this does happen to you, remember that this one instance doesn’t define you or your Zoom call and future Zoom hangs, virtual club nights et al.

“Thankfully, there was still enough time in the meeting to go back to dancing and having fun,” Phillips said. “It did leave a bit of a sour note at the end of what was an amazing night [but], I had forgotten that this 2-3 minute event even happened, as the rest of the club was so enjoyable.”

“I haven’t heard any news of another club night next week, but I’m hoping that this one incident doesn’t deter the host from running more in the future.”

If you do experience something on Zoom that makes you uncomfortable, know that there are people who’ll listen. Specifically, contact support hotlines like BeyondBlue (1300 22 4636), 1800Respect and Lifeline (13 11 14).

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.

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