Nakamura et al. 2021
Nakamura, Lisa, Hanah Stiverson, and Kyle Lindsey. Racist Zoombombing. New York: Routledge, 2021.
We argue that the racism and misogyny that characterizes zoombomb- ing is the same racism and misogyny that the Internet has trafficked in from its origin. Zoombombing differs from more benign kinds of trolling such as DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks be- cause it has intimate ties and critical engagements with the growth of the far-right, the manosphere, and the culture of “red-pilling,” which are all vital to understanding why videoconferences are so often disrupted by racist and sexist hate and what purposes these acts serve in our society.
This book asks the reader to recognize zoombombing for what it is: a reification of systems of harm that exposes a broader audience to what women and people of color have known about technology and our society all along.
They are both our heroes and our scapegoats: Zoom has become radically overdetermined as a source of intimacy and connection and as a vector for deep and justified anger.
In defiance of the notion that there’s a bright line between the virtual and real, we found that racial abuse during Zoom meetings that included family, coworkers, and friends caused lasting trauma, anxiety, and anger.
By creating a “simple and purposeful” platform for everyone to use, Zoom has become the default virtual meeting room for work, education, family gatherings, celebrations, and community engagements. It has become an aggregator for inti- mate moments while encouraging public access.
Zoom is part of a de facto monopoly that includes Google, Am- azon, and Apple. Zoom’s perceived ease of use has made it the only videoconferencing platform that many institutions are willing to purchase.
One of the reasons we care about this issue is because Zoom is a tool for parents to remediate racism. Black parents have no- ticed that virtual school has protected their children from un- fair treatment in the classroom and allowed Black kids to focus on learning rather than contending with harassment from peers and teachers.
…when confronted by Dr. Dennis Johnson, a Black academic who was racially attacked during his dissertation defense, the company released a statement that com- pletely avoided any mention of racism or hate crimes. Nate Johnson, a spokesperson for Zoom, claimed that “Zoom strongly condemns harassment of this kind” (italics ours). This book exists because as
race scholars we are bound to explore and press hard on the vague- ness and disavowal inherent in this rhetoric.
Zoom is sim- ilar to older digital platforms such as Facebook or Twitter that have systems for reporting bugs or other technological problems that users encounter, but unlike them it lacks a reporting system that allows a user to specifically flag hate speech or harassment.
Omitting this feature effectively hides the problem by failing to acknowledge its existence.
This book is organized around three insights about digital racial histories: like other forms of online harassment, zoombombing re- lies upon a complex ecosystem of adjoining platforms and existing histories of anti-Black racism; zoombombing leverages the far-right movement’s effective use of humor alongside hate; and Black user experiences have fallen out of the public and academic discourse about videoconferencing.
In defiance of the cyberutopian notion that the Internet would reduce racism and sexism by moving it into a more controllable digital space, our interviewees found that Zoom gave them little to no control in the moment that they needed it.
11 1 New Platform, Same Racists: How Social Media and Gaming Route Racist Hatred to Zoom
2Critical race theory understands racist acts in public as more than bids for attention; they are tactic and a strategy to create a world where people of color are unwelcome, treated as not-people, and both erased and made hypervisible as racist spectacle.
…ges.” 3How can we tell the difference be- tween racism as a cynical move meant to attract attention – and “felt” racism, racism as part of an ideology that extends out into and organizes a person’s life and politics? Does intention much matter here? We say no. Intent truly doesn’t matter when the ac- tions cause harm. The distinction between individuals who recog- nize themselves as racist and those who use racism without viewing themselves that way is completely illegible and inconsequential to those who have to live with the fallout of these exper…
This statement illustrates why zoombombing is so confounding and so poorly handled by institutions; it falls into a crack between an information technology problem that needs to be addressed by systems engineers and telecommunication specialists and a “climate” problem that would bypass the IT de- partment and become the responsibility of the DEI or personnel office.
Because zoombombing isn’t like a server crash that affects hun- dreds of people, it is often addressed as a one-off event or glitch rather than an open door to structural racialized hate.
Zoom is an essential service in the COVID era. “Essential” has come to mean “non-optional.” Zoom users are not choosing the plat- form, rather they are forced onto it with varying degrees of support and preparation, and must learn to navigate new ideas of labor, com- munity building, and social life in the face of a pandemic. In short, everyone is a vulnerable user on Zoom.
Oftentimes zoombombings originate from a call-to-arms on message boards such as 4chan or Discord, by individuals that have access to a meeting ID and/or password. This is often the case when the instigator has a direct or indirect connection to a class, a church, work, or local government meeting. Raid organizers target teachers, other students, coworkers, or other members of their so- cial networks.
Individuals on Discord organize zoombombing by employing bots programmed to scrape public Zoom IDs from other social media sites, primarily Twitter.
In gaming, players who purposely campaign either alone or in groups to harass other players are called “trolls” or “griefers.” Like zoombombing, much of this activity is racist and sexist, but not all of it is. We argue that these terms minimize the damage that calling a player the “N” word on Xbox during a game produces. Griefers specialize in winkling out these moments of celebration and joy in digital play in order to destroy them. Zoombombing wouldn’t exist the way it does if racist griefing in gaming were not already such an entrenched practice, a rehearsal space for racism in public events where Black people and other non-white men must now live their lives. The Internet didn’t become a trashfire all of a sudden: it hap- pened over a long period of time.
In short, zoombombing is an act of terrorism: isolated, explosive, anony- mous or semi-anonymous, and digitally coordinated.
…acism describes how women of color players experience misogynoir (a term devel- oped by Moya Bailey and Trudy to describe violence targeted specif- ically at Black women) 15at the hands of other gamers, and how they have mobilized themselves to fight back.
Misogynoir allows us to understand the scope of what goes into Black experiences in online and gaming spaces. It works to uncover the intersections of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, patriarchy, and the objectification of Black women. Anonymity increases the viability for misogyny and racism in online spaces.
Who benefits when zoombombing is described as party-crashing rather than as a racist attack, when we minimize it and understand it as business as usual?
26 2 Zoom Is Memetic Warfare: Zoombombing and the Far Right
The goal of media scholarship is to help us understand the histo- ries and afterlives of communicative forms. Digital or “new” media presents challenges because of its ephemerality, massive scale, and emergent qualities, requiring us to analyze it while living in it.
Two conditions have paved the way for zoombombing: a resur- gent fascist movement that has found its legs and best megaphone on the Internet and an often-unwitting public who have been suddenly required to spend many hours a day on this platform.
Zoombombing sprang into being as a widespread practice because it was able to tap into the frustration and opportunities presented by the US’s culturally polarized society and buoyed by a platform that provides ample opportunities for these particular styles of attacks.
Zoombombing should not be lumped into the larger category of trolling, both because the word “trolling” has become so broad it is nearly meaningless at times, and because zoombomb- ing is designed to cause intimate harm and terrorize its targets in distinct ways.
Though there is a wide spectrum of tactics and goals within the larger category of zoombombing, we’ve found that it is most commonly used for racist and gendered attacks and that attackers regularly seek out spaces intended for community and safety.
COVID has reprioritized and reframed everyday acts of living, working, and communicating and has created fertile ground for a regime of seemingly random racial terror. Zoombombing now fits into a growing framework of memetic warfare: platforms such as Discord, Twitter, and 4chan funnel bombers and unwitting us- ers alike into an unpredictable, unmoderated, anonymous, and consequence-free space.
and other signs and signifiers, we see this subset of Zoom misuse as both distinctive and as belonging to a more expansive category of proto-fascist content that has been banned on other platforms but appears there frequently nonetheless.
When zoombombing happens in a group of all white people and bypasses people of color, it overlaps structur- ally, historically, and semiotically with the far-right even when its perpetrators are not aware of or participating in those movements, which is exactly why we call this memetic warfare. Zoombombing serves the far-right racist movement even when the carriers of this meme who decide to zoombomb for fun aren’t aware of it. A virus doesn’t need a host to believe in it: it just needs a carrier and a pop- ulation to infect.
While certainly zoombombing can be under- stood as part of the lineage or ecosystem of trollish behavior, we argue that it needs to be critiqued and understood as more than simply trolling because this term emerged during an earlier, less media-rich and interpersonally live Internet.
To be red- pilled is to be radicalized into a male-supremacist and/or white- supremacist community, to be “awakened.” The term took root in the manosphere/incel communities, quickly spreading to white su- premacist spaces.
The Overton Win- dow, or the indicator of what is publicly acceptable in social dis- course, has shifted so far to the right that it is now not only possible but absolutely the norm that zoombombing is viewed as a relatively harmless prank compared to the plethora of other less-ephemeral and longer-duration overtly racist and misogynistic content and be- havior online.
In much of the commentary we found on online platforms used to organize these attacks, participants framed their use of zoombomb- ing similarly. They saw their actions as humorous and claimed in the comments to not understand why people reacted as strongly as they did – why they didn’t get the joke – even as it was clear that the
violence of the act and the shock was always the point.
13As with Pepe, zoombombers derive social capital in their usage through constructs of violence, and memes and memetic war- fare are an important part of the accumulation of social capital.
Memes are the improvised explosive device (IED) of information warfare. 15We are well in the midst of a digital cultural war based on information and data, rather than weapons and bodies, and memes and other elements of the far-right’s political aesthetic play a key role in this conflict.
…hile these examples are lauded as highly impactful, most campaigns “from the other side” are rarely as effective com- pared to those “on the right.” One key to the right’s effectiveness is the straightforwardness of their goals and their allergy to nuance.
Early trolling culture claimed to be apolitical, targeting a spectrum of ad- visories with the common goal of showcasing a nihilistic, trickster aesthetic.
36 3 Affective Violations: Black People’s Experiences with Zoombombing
Zoombombing and other forms of online abuse are like a stool that has three legs: the abuser, the platform, and the target or witness.
This attack had a major impact on the labor required of Moore to keep the group alive and to fulfill its original purpose: to support women of color.
Theorist and poet Cathy Park Hong describes this kind of racism as a “minor feeling” that doesn’t rise to the level of headline-worthy event, but skates under and around the line, like a nagging headache that isn’t yet a migraine.
The IT staff were well aware of Zoom’s dangers and prepared as well as they could to defend the event against bombing.
Dr. Johnson was able to complete his defense, but for weeks af- terward he found himself mentally returning to the zoombombing despite his desire to put it behind him. This moment that he had looked forward to and prepared for so extensively had, in many ways, been stolen from him.
Like Angelique Herring, he described how two feelings, shock and resignation, can live together.
He speculates that his mother, grandmother, and other relatives were not surprised by seeing this racialized attack and were able to con- tinue to attend and support without comment because “we already knew that if we couldn’t be protected in society that there was no way that we were going to be protected online.”
In keeping with the argument made throughout the rest of the book, our participants did not experience Zoom as a novel platform
or zoombombing as a completely new experience; quite the oppo- site, in fact. Zoombombing fit quite comfortably with other expe- riences of racial harassment that these three people had endured in the past.
As many people have been made to work from home, per- sonal and professional lives have flattened even further; for those who were already freelancing or working from their homes, there is no respite or retreat from the possibility of work. This is one of zoombombing’s more nefarious violations. As our interviewees mentioned to us, after they had been zoombombed, they still had to sleep in that bed, sit on the couch, eat at that table.
Zoombomb- ing brings those attacks directly into your home. One’s living space comes to hold not only the promise and experience of comfort and safety but also the traumas of racial violence.
Hackers have always deeply enjoyed the creative challenge of getting around new forms of security as both a sign of their own technological prowess and as part of gaming traditions such as “leetspeak,” which uses alphanu- meric characters to fool NLP filte…
The problem isn’t that Zoom can’t fix it, or even that we as users don’t have the time or capacity to fix it: the problem is that we have gotten used to feeling powerless and disengaged when the Internet ruins elections, turns out search results that identify Black people as gorillas and AI that identifies Asian people as needing to open their eyes for digital cameras. It’s dismissed as the Internet’s basic nature. And most of us can’t re- member a time when it was ever different.
51 4 Conclusion
Which harm-reduction methods would move the platform in the right direction? We leave the policymaking to policymakers, but as humanistic critical race and digital studies scholars, we urge a rethinking of digital labor and responsibility. Holding some of the richest and most dominant companies responsible for user safety, rather than demanding that individual users jump through hoops to craft protection that may not come, is long overdue.
We see zoombombed people as valuable collaborators who can create meaningful reform and moderation efforts; indeed, it’s hard to imagine how change might occur without them.
First, individuals without institutional or paid premium licensing for “small team, small/big business, or a large enterprise[s]” have no access to key Zoom options.
Second, being under the banner of an institution willing and able to pay for licensing does not guarantee the safety of the people on those platforms.
Third, often the safety options offered end up causing the spaces and communities produced to be altered in ways that detract from their original goals.
While the institutions that license Zoom are seen as essential parts of the system, the individual users, both affiliated and unaf- filiated with a larger institution, are seen as irksome or parasitic, rather than as smaller and essential pieces to this digital ecosystem.
The move from no usage to several hours a day of usage has left little affective overhead for critique of the platform itself. We often hear talk of how tired “we” are of “Zooming,” but as a larger society, we have not grappled with the exhaustion that continued racial and gendered attacks have on individuals targeted for their personhood. There is now ample evidence that “neutral” platforms produce harassment and abuse, that neutrality is impossible because dig- ital infrastructures express social values and priorities. 5In order for Zoom to pivot away from neutrality to responsibility, it needs anti-racist policies, values, and participation by the people of color who are most harmed by it.
Zoom cancelled the “We Will Not Be Silenced: Resisting the Censorship of Leila Khaled, Palestinian Voices…and the Online College Classroom” event because they believed it violated its Terms of Service and Community standards; Khaled, a Palestinian refugee, is a controversial figure who has been called a terrorist by her critics. Zoom’s choice to “moderate” her voice was a political
one, but couched in the legalese of “community standards.” How- ever, as we’ve learned from talking to Dr. Johnson, Dr. Moore, and Angelique Herring, these policies are not enforced equally.
It should be clear by now that we strongly believe that platform safety needs to be a higher priority.