Zoom-Trolling: A Weapon for Discrimination or a Tool for Social Change?
Zoom-trolling: the act of showing up uninvited to a Zoom meeting and proceeding to disrupt it by sharing video, voice, or text content.
Zoom-trolling has been on the rise since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as more people began turning to the platform for remote work and school meetings.
According to a 2020 VICE article, Zoom had only 10 million daily users pre-pandemic. By April 2020, that number had risen to 300 million.
So, what has made Zoom such a huge breeding ground for trolls?
Security and Privacy Issues on Zoom
Zoom trolls have taken advantage not only of the astronomical increase of the platform’s user base to hijack meetings, but also of its security limitations.
First, there’s the issue of users sharing invite links and passwords publicly. As detailed in a 2021 WIRED article, although Zoom meetings are password-protected by default, meeting hosts often share meeting invite links along with meeting passwords in public online spaces, thus allowing strangers to infiltrate them. However, even when hosts don’t share this information publicly, malicious insiders do.
In fact, a study on Zoom-bombing conducted by Boston University computer scientist Gianluca Stringhini and his research team found that most observed Zoom-bombing cases originated with an insider sharing a meeting link online and inviting users to infiltrate it, as highlighted by the WIRED article.
This study, as described by WIRED, explores other security issues with Zoom, too.
For example, there’s the lack of required user authentication. Platforms like Google Meet require users by default to be logged into their Google account to join a meeting. This isn’t the case for Zoom. Although hosts can change meeting settings to require authentication, Zoom meetings are by default accessible to those who aren’t logged into a Zoom account, making it harder to authenticate users’ identities.
Using waiting rooms to screen participants before allowing them to enter a meeting doesn’t seem to solve the problem, either, because insiders often share lists of legitimate attendees online to allow their co-conspirators to impersonate them.
Finally, any user on Zoom is by default able to share their video or screen in a meeting unless a host purposefully restricts these features by using Zoom’s webinar feature.
Zoom-trolling activities range from the childish and largely harmless to the traumatizing and despicable. As detailed by VICE, some Zoom-bombers are simply interested in playing childish pranks on strangers—making silly noises and drawing genitalia on the meeting screen.
Others, however, use the screen share feature to share videos of pornography or child abuse. Some also direct hatred towards marginalized groups like people of colour or the queer community by shouting racial slurs or sharing discriminatory messages in the chat.
Zoom Trolls at UWindsor
UWindsor students have not been immune to Zoom-trolling. On Monday, November 8, The Lance conducted 24-hour Instagram polls to survey UWindsor students on their experiences with Zoom-trolling. When asked whether they’ve ever been Zoom-trolled, 8 students responded that they hadn’t been Zoom-trolled, while 1 user responded that they had. In the following poll, which asked what kind of Zoom-trolling users had experienced, this user responded that their experience was related to discriminatory declarations of hatred.
I reached out to them for more information about their experiences. The UWindsor student, who requested to remain anonymous, told us about how an online fundraising event they participated in was Zoom-trolled.
“I was part of a fundraiser called GISHWHES, the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen, run by a non-profit called Random Acts,” they told us. The event began with a Zoom meeting, and the student speculated that “it was trolled by what I can only guess was a bot, continually spamming the chat with horrendous messages of racist comments and slurs.”
Why a bot, I wondered. “It seemed like an automatic message, as it was three different repeated statements sent one after the other separately, which seems difficult to copy-paste that fast when they are not all the same, so that was my impression,” explained the student. They’re unsure how the user infiltrated the meeting, “since only people involved got a code”.
The hosts tried to ban the troll but were having issues. In response, the student tells me that they, along with the other participants, began flooding the chat with messages of love to drown out the hate. “The attendees were really awesome, in a way,” they said. “They, along with me, spammed the chat with messages of love and hope, like “love always wins” and “there is strength in unity”, and this continued until the troll was removed and banned”.
Although it wasn’t reflected in responses to The Lance’s Instagram polls, other UWindsor students have also witnessed or experienced instances of Zoom-trolling involving discrimination.
One student who requested to remain anonymous told me about an incident during an online charity fundraising event they helped organize for an unnamed department at the University. “We were advertising this event through our Instagram and Facebook,” they told me, “and because it was a charity event, we wanted as much turnout as possible, so we posted the link publicly.”
The event was going well until the host let in some participants they didn’t recognize.
“They started speaking and kind of mock-participating in the event,” the student explained to me, “but then people started changing their names to people in the meeting, like mine, and saying really gross and racist things about the people in the meeting in the chat. And then somehow, one of them drew a swastika over the shared screen.”
The student added: “At this point, the event organizers were really freaked out, and opted to end the meeting right there.”
The organizers sent a new meeting link to the participants that were in attendance before the trolls showed up, and the event went on. “But a lot of people, including myself, were shaken,” qualified the student. “The speculation was that this event was targeted because we have a lot of students [in this department] who are very outspoken about politics, and we have many people with marginalized identities.”
In the aftermath of the event, organizers and participants made use of campus mental health resources, and organizers made a point to start prioritizing online security. “After the event, execs met and made sure to tighten our Zoom security,” said the student. “We had never anticipated something like this happening, especially because of our community. We felt horrible that we had allowed this to happen to our community, and it was an event that took a lot of us time to heal from. Many of us took advantage of the school’s mental health resources, and as a council, we started to prioritize online safety much more.”
“Having your name taken and made to say terrible racist and homophobic things is really scary,” they concluded, “especially in a time where mental health and morale were already low”.
One other UWindsor student I spoke with shared their experiences of hate-related Zoom-trolling with me. They told me about an online event that was held by a club at an unnamed University in Ontario and that was trolled by homophobes. Around 200 people were in attendance at this event.
“Five dudes came in mid-way through and started shouting a bunch of homophobic slurs,” the student told me, “even though the conference wasn’t about anything related to LGBTQ issues.”
Interestingly, the trolls “used their real names, because one of the attendees was a prof and said [to one of them]: “you’re in my morning lecture”. So, these guys clearly were not the brightest.”
Given the visibility of their identities, I asked whether the students were sanctioned for their actions. The student replied: “Yeah, they ended up getting kicked out of school”.
Zoom-trolling can clearly be a force for evil. Although most of the UWindsor students that responded to our Instagram poll said they hadn’t experienced Zoom-trolling, the students I talked to who had experienced it all experienced the discrimination and hate-related kind, rather than the childish pranks or pornographic variety.
Zoom as a Double-Edged Sword
Is Zoom-trolling all bad, though? A few current events broadcast in the news made me wonder whether online trolling held any potential as a tool for social change or political protest.
In June 2020, for instance, TikTok users, and especially K-Pop fans, trolled Donald Trump, then President of the United States, by organizing to reserve seats for his June 20th campaign rally in Tulsa, as reported by the CBC.
The catch? They had no intention of actually showing up.
By flooding Trump’s campaign website with fake sign-ups, these social media users inflated the campaign’s expected attendance numbers. Trump campaign chairman Brad Parscale had claimed via tweet that more than a million people had signed up to attend. Tulsa city officials were expecting a crowd of at least 100,000 people. Yet, only 6,200 people showed up.
Around the same time period, K-Pop fans proved themselves to be allies of the Black Lives Matter movement by spamming hashtags like “white lives matter” and police apps with videos and memes of K-Pop stars.
Then, in September 2021, TikTok users and coders spammed a Texas abortion whistleblower website with fake tips, as reported by The New York Times.
On September 1st, a Texas law restricting most abortions after 6 weeks went into effect. Under this law, private citizens are deputized to sue anyone who performs or helps someone get an abortion. Texas’ biggest anti-abortion group, Texas Right to Life, created a website called prolifewhistleblower.com to allow citizens to submit tips on people they believe have violated the law.
So, TikTok users and coders teamed up to spam the website with fake tips. Coders set up apps that would automatically send authentic-looking fake tips to the website, and social media users made wide use of them.
The NYT points to these two incidents as examples of increasingly prevalent hacktivism.
Hacktivism at UWindsor
Hacktivism is closer to you than you might think.
In fact, on November 23, 2020, the Windsor chapter of the Revolutionary Student Movement—a pan-Canadian anti-capitalist student organization—held a digital sit-in at an online RCMP career recruitment event hosted in collaboration with the University of Windsor. Their goal was to protest the policing institution and the University’s giving them a platform to recruit students.
In an Instagram carousel post dated November 19, 2020, RSM Windsor calls for the University of Windsor to cancel the November 23 event and criticizes the school for giving the RCMP a platform to recruit members.
The post’s caption denounces the systemic racism and police brutality within the RCMP, and especially its abuses against Indigenous peoples.
The post also calls for students to email the University administration to express their concerns about the event and sign up for the event in order to participate in the digital sit-in. “The idea is to bombard and spam them with direct questions about the racism and abuse the RCMP perpetuates,” the fourth post in the carousel reads. “If enough people do this, they will not be able to advertise or effectively recruit.”
In a follow-up, Instagram post dated November 23, 2020, the group thanks all those who participated in the sit-in and asked questions during the event’s Q&A “to criticize the RCMP’s colonialism and misogyny”.
The post elaborates: “Rather than answer, the host kicked each questioner out of the call, became frustrated, and ended the call early. If there was anyone at all in that call who was actually considering joining the RCMP, they’re definitely reconsidering now.”
A video clip of the sit-in posted by the group later on the same day confirms that the host did not respond to participants’ questions related to RCMP misconduct, that they kicked them out of the call after asking these questions, and that they ended the call early.
I reached out to both RSM Windsor and Ontario’s division of the RCMP to obtain more information about the event, but neither responded to my request for comment.
Now, whether you agree or not with RSM Windsor’s actions and the group’s stance on policing is irrelevant. What RSM Windsor’s digital sit-in reveals is the potential of Zoom-trolling and hacktivism as tools of political protest.
Like the TikTok users and K-Pop fans who spammed Donald Trump’s campaign website with fake rally registrations and the TikTokers and coders who spammed a Texas abortion whistleblower site with fake tips, RSM Windsor’s digital sit-in shows that you can disrupt and protest something you don’t think is right through the sheer power of the Internet.
These acts of dissent complicate the picture of Zoom-trolling. Rather than a mere tool for playing pranks or a weapon to spread obscenity and hatred, Zoom-trolling is simultaneously a new, accessible, and powerful tool of civil disobedience. Prometheus hath stolen fire from the gods and given it to humanity, so to speak.