‘Zoombombing’: With everyone at home, anti-Semites have a new way to harass Jews
ADL: Extremists don't miss opportunity to leverage a crisis

‘Zoombombing’: With everyone at home, anti-Semites have a new way to harass Jews

As Jewish groups host virtual conferences to socially distance amid coronavirus outbreak, neo-Nazis are disrupting those meetings with anti-Semitic vitriol, ADL says

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" march in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via JTA)
Illustrative: Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" march in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via JTA)

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world. Millions of people are social distancing and hunkering down in their homes to stop the spread of the virus.

Still, anti-Semites are finding new ways to harass Jews.

Last week, a white supremacist interrupted a webinar — the standard new mode of communication in the age of coronavirus — for a Massachusetts Jewish student group. After joining the conference, hosted on the popular telework platform Zoom, the man pulled down his shirt collar and showed a tattooed swastika on his chest, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents.

This is an example of “Zoombombing” — a targeted disruption of virtual meetings, often using graphic images, to threaten and intimidate a group of people. And it is now a tactic being deployed by anti-Semites.

The ADL suspects the hacker was Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer, known on the internet as “weev,” a neo-Nazi notorious fo advancing his warped ideology online, and who has a swastika tattoo on his right pectoral muscle.

Notorious computer hacker and internet troll Andrew Auernheimer leaves the Martin Luther King, Jr. Courthouse after posting bail in Newark, NJ on February 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

“One again, extremists and haters will never miss an opportunity to try to leverage a crisis and a moment in time,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the ADL’s Center for Extremism.

It’s not yet clear how widespread the practice has become, but a pattern has emerged. NBC News reported that harassers hijacked a virtual Torah lesson last week using anti-Semitic language and displaying anti-Semitic imagery. In Thousand Oaks, California, an online school board meeting was ended early after someone shared a Nazi flag and swastika.

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus — and the implementation of social-distancing measures, based on the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Americans have stopped meeting in person and instead resort to virtual conferences, often through Zoom or other popular platforms, like Microsoft Teams.

Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism speaks during the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, in Washington, February 18, 2015. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In an interview, Segal told The Times of Israel that extremists have been tracking ways to penetrate those meetings to provoke Jews, as well as other minority groups.

“Reports have been coming in from Jewish institutions and Jewish individuals, some not necessarily specific to the Jewish community, about how there are people who are trying to disrupt their Zoom meetings,” he said. “In several of these cases, it’s beyond disruption for disruption’s sake. They’re using racist language, in some cases white-supremacist language, so it’s a tactic, it seems, of those who want to spread their hatred.”

Worse yet, he added, they are preying upon people who are more vulnerable than usual, stuck in self-isolation while trying to overcome a global pandemic.

“At a time when more and more people are spending time at home for obvious reasons and finding ways to communicate through Zoom to keep continuity and a sense of community, this tactic obviously creates even more fear and anxiety,” he said.

Segal declined to provide more details about the Massachusetts incident, in the interest of protecting the identity of the victims. But he emphasized that people are not powerless against digital onslaughts.

“There are ways to keep your Zoom calls more safe, whether it is assigning a meeting ID and not using a personal meeting ID; preventing screen sharing by non-hosts, so that people are not able to amplify images of their hate in the middle of the meeting; enabling waiting rooms,” he said.

“There’s a whole list of technical tactics that people can use to keep their calls more safe.”

Over the last several years, the ADL has called for Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to more rigorously enforce their hate speech rules. The group’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, has advised Congress to craft stronger laws if the tech giants don’t address the problem on their own.

The trend of neo-Nazis hacking video conferences, however, is a relatively new phenomenon. While it’s not clear yet how the platforms themselves should respond, Segal advised users to remain vigilant.

“Maybe we need to be just as mindful about the security of online spaces as we are physical spaces,” he said. “Perhaps now more than ever, when extremists have more time on their hands.”

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