Zoom-Bombing and the Far-Right’s Latest Assault on College Communities

For the modern far right in America, higher education is a major battleground. Whether as targets for hate or as potential recruiting grounds, college campuses have consistently been on the front lines of the far-right culture war that has been raging over the last four years. Organizations like Turning Point USA, the Patriot Front and the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa) have embarked on a concerted campaign to disrupt the safe spaces and liberal politics of college campuses, whilst simultaneously seeking to foster radical racist politics among certain sections of their student bodies and create a grassroots far-right movement. Traditionally, these campaigns of propaganda, intimidation and recruitment have consisted of mass flyering, tabling, leaflet drops and disruption of on-campus activities, often coordinated on a national scale through channels such as Gab and Telegram.

This campaign has been complicated in recent weeks, however, as colleges across the country have seen a mass exodus as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As campuses lie empty, these traditional methods of harassment and recruitment have become wholly ineffective. Yet this has not stopped the desire of those on the racist political fringe to target and disrupt the college space, and far-right groups and actors are finding new, equally harmful ways to target students and faculty. With the transition to online learning, new opportunities have come for those with malicious intent, in some cases even allowing them into the previously sacrosanct classroom space. One such example is a new trend known as ‘Zoom Bombing’, which is fast becoming the new modus operandi for far-right activists seeking to attack, or even just ‘troll’, college students and their professors.

Zoom, a video-conferencing platform that has rocketed to international prominence as a result of the sudden shift to work-from-home and online learning in the early months of 2020, has become the go-to app for professors seeking to maintain some semblance of normalcy during the COVID-enforced exodus from the traditional classroom. Given the rapid shift and steep learning-curve experienced by many professors who have not used Zoom or similar software before, virtual classroom security has often been an overlooked factor. This has left major loopholes, and has opened access to teaching spaces for malicious actors, particularly far-right trolls or those seeking to intimidate. The result is Zoom-Bombing, or Zoom Raiding, a practice of logging into ‘private’ (but unsecured) Zoom calls and either harassing, intimidating or ‘trolling’ students and teachers.

Two such cases have occurred over the last week in Massachusetts alone, with one individual reportedly logging into an online class before shouting profanities and sharing the teacher’s home address, and the other case involving a man who displayed neo-Nazi tattoos on camera, including a swastika. These cases are far from alone, and in recent weeks enough reports have surfaced on twitter and other social media to suggest that a concerted effort is being made by far-right actors to disrupt the online classroom. An investigation by the New York Times found over 150 social media accounts as well as a number of chatroom forums and Discord servers in which groups were planning or discussing organized, concerted Zoom-bombing campaigns. Many of these accounts and forum users shared meeting passwords and details on professors or meeting-conveners, allowing for targeted abuse and harassment. Users have reported Zoom-bombers shouting racial slurs, drawing neo-Nazi insignia, sharing explicit or violent videos and ‘doxxing’ – sharing the confidential personal information of – faculty and participants.

The phenomenon has become so widespread in such a short period of time that the FBI issued a warning to users of the platform last week, highlighting the issue of Zoom-bombing and cautioning meeting conveners to take appropriate steps to maintain the security of their calls. This in turn prompted a number of public school districts, most notably New York City Department of Education, to ban the use of Zoom in any of their online classrooms, taking an instant toll on Zoom stock, which fell over 14 percent in a single day.

Despite the damage that Zoom-bombing has done, however, the platform remains popular. Major universities continue to push the use of Zoom and for many faculty members and students it remains the easiest, most accessible option for maintaining a semblance of normalcy in these trying times. If the far-right hijacking of Zoom is to be stopped, each and every user of the platform must take the necessary precautions to ensure that their meeting is not hacked or raided by malicious actors whose primary intent is to intimidate and harass students. In order to use Zoom safely, users can restrict screen-sharing to the convener; organize invite-only meetings; or create waiting rooms through which the convener can approve members. If users are not careful and informed, however, the gateway will remain open for far-right actors to hijack and harass, continuing their decades-long campaign of targeting the college space.

Mr Simon Purdue is a Doctoral Fellow at Doctoral candidate in World History, Northeastern University. See his profile here.

© Simon Purdue. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).