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Racial Slurs And Swastikas Fuel Civil Rights Pressure On Zoom

Zoom has become an essential tool for millions during the pandemic, but civil rights groups say the company must act aggressively to stop harassment on its platform.
Olivier Douliery
AFP via Getty Images
Zoom has become an essential tool for millions during the pandemic, but civil rights groups say the company must act aggressively to stop harassment on its platform.

A civil rights group is demanding that Zoom do more to stop harassment on its video-conferencing platform.

Color Of Change, a nonprofit that advocates for racial equality, is meeting on Friday with Zoom's global risk and compliance officer, Lynn Haaland, NPR has learned. The group plans to raise concerns over a rise in "Zoombombing" attacks involving racist slurs and hate speech.

"Black women are having a church gathering [on Zoom], and have people come in drawing genitalia and calling them the N-word," said Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change.

His and other groups have found evidence of organized Zoombombing campaigns on Twitter and Instagram, as well as 4chan, an online message board popular with the far right. In screenshots viewed by NPR, people shared links and passwords to coordinate attacks on unsuspecting Zoom users.

Now Color Of Change says Zoom must take more responsibility for what happens on its platform.

"We want them to release a specific plan to combat racial harassment," Robinson said.

The group also wants Zoom to hire a chief diversity officer to focus on how the technology impacts minorities, improve security and apologize formally to victims.

Color Of Change has recruited other advocacy groups that are Zoom clients to back its demands, including the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, according to a letter to Zoom viewed by NPR.

In a statement, Zoom said it "takes user security extremely seriously and the company looks forward to the discussion with Color Of Change."

Zoom was founded as a remote conferencing service for businesses. But its popularity has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic, as people stuck at home move classes, town halls and even Passover Seders online. The company says it had 200 million daily users in March.

The Anti-Defamation League is among groups raising concerns. It says it has traced two Zoombombing attacks to a known white nationalist, who displayed a swastika tattoo during virtual events held by Jewish groups.

"As more and more people are spending time at home, so are the extremists, who are looking to find ways to leverage the technology to harass people," said Oren Segal, who runs the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, during a presentation this week on Zoombombing.

"These are moments where people are trying to find community, trying to find opportunities to create normal discussion with colleagues, with friends and with family," he said. "And that's why this is particularly disturbing."

Law enforcement is also paying attention. Prosecutors in Michigan have warned that anyone who hacks video conferences can be charged with a crime and may face jail time.

In recent weeks, Zoom taken steps to make it harder for intruders to invade meetings. It now requires passwords by default, for example. When people report harassment, the company blocks attackers' IP addresses so they cannot get back onto Zoom from the same device.

But critics say Zoom should be more proactive, given that other popular platforms also have been plagued by trolls, neo-Nazis and other harassers.

On NPR's All Things Considered this week, Zoom CEO and founder Eric Yuan was asked whether he should have anticipated such attacks.

"I never thought about this seriously," he answered.

Researchers who study online extremism warn that the harassment that begins with Zoombombing doesn't end with the virtual meetings themselves.

"A lot of these folks are taking a video or taking screenshots and then sharing them in other places," said Joan Donovan of the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center. "We're seeing the artifacts of Zoombombing show up on YouTube and on TikTok and on other video-sharing platforms."

When that happens, it's hard for Zoom — or any individual company — to end the vicious cycle.

Editor's note: Zoom is among NPR's sponsors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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