USC enacted stricter protocols on online instruction Tuesday after two classes using Zoom software were disrupted by unknown attackers who stated racial epithets and drew inappropriate figures on the shared lecture screens.
These instances happened on USC’s second day of online instruction in COMM 200, “Communication and Social Science,” and AMST 101, “Race and Class in Los Angeles.”
This type of gate-crashing disruption is known as “zoombombing.”
USC President Carol Folt and USC Provost Charles Zukoski sent an email to the USC community later that evening to address the situations.
“We are deeply saddened that our students and faculty have had to witness such despicable acts,” the memo stated. “When students and faculty gather, there is a trust that it is a safe environment. This trust has been breached by people intentionally trying to cause great harm at a time when our entire community is trying to cope with a global health crisis.”
Folt added that corrective action is being taken to try and eliminate zoombombings in the future.
Willow Bay, dean of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, sent an email to students in COMM 200 Tuesday addressing the incident.
“This kind of racist behavior is abhorrent and will not be tolerated anywhere in our community. We will do everything we can to ensure it does not happen again as we transition to online learning,” Bay wrote. “I am personally devastated because I know how hard everyone is working to deliver a true USC Annenberg education in this time of crisis. I also know that you — our students — are doing your best to adapt while facing so many challenges brought on by this pandemic.”
Since anyone can join a Zoom meeting if they have access to the meeting link, the university enacted new protocols and recommended tips to its faculty to prevent further disruptions.
USC’s Chief Information Officer Douglas Shook emailed the Trojan community Wednesday morning announcing that the university has enabled an online waiting room. These waiting rooms will lock out participants who do not log in using their USC Zoom credentials. From there, the Zoom host will determine who to admit in class.
Additionally, Shook encouraged faculty to practice “class management” with disruptive individuals. This includes removing the disruptive participant from the class and locking them out from the meeting altogether. He also recommended creating passwords for each lecture.
Cheyenne Trac, a sophomore in AMST 101, said over a phone interview that the individual began the interruption by drawing on the screen. When the professor tried to remove the inappropriate drawings, the individual repeatedly said the N-word, prompting the professor to end the Zoom session. The professor restarted the class and the individual began referring to the coronavirus as the “Kungfu virus,” prompting the professors to cancel the class.
Kristal Silva, a junior who is also in COMM 200, explained over a Zoom interview that she was about 10 minutes into the lecture when she noticed odd behavior from one of the class attendees. According to her, the professor was trying to figure out who had been drawing on her shared screen when the class collectively realized that the individual had been writing the N-word.
“Never have I ever experienced something like that,” Silva said. “Being a woman of color and coming to an area that’s predominantly white, yes, I’ve seen racist things, but not so evident where it’s thrown at your face.”
Silva explained that her professor tried muting individuals who she thought had been causing the disturbance. She said another 20 minutes passed before the next disturbance, where more individuals joined the class shouting “racial slurs and negative profanity.” Silvia thinks their comments were directed at the African American football players sitting in her lecture. Silva shared that her professor tried several more times to mute the individuals she thought caused the disturbance, but when the harassment continued, the professor ended the session entirely.
“I really don’t know how any of this happened,” Silva said. “This isn’t trolling: this is an attack, and that’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
The professors whose classes were disrupted did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Silvia also disapproves of how the university has handled the issue thus far. According to her, the memos sent out by the USC administration in the wake of tragedies and public disturbances should be more catered to communities affected.
“I feel like [USC] thinks too much about their image that they don’t put in mind the actual students who feel uncomfortable,” Silva said. “Rather than saying [USC does not] approve, [USC should] say, ‘Our apologies to the people who have felt personally attacked,’ or something where it’s not making it about [USC], but making it more about the students.”
Moving forward, Silva thinks the university should consider having classes take place over Blackboard, an online education platform, instead.
“If we continue through Zoom, and we don’t have something that’s protected, I think that this is only going to get worse,” she said.
These targeted attacks via Zoom are not specific to USC. In a similar instance, Chipotle quickly ended a public Zoom call after a participant began broadcasting pornography to hundreds of attendees.
Zoom has released its own set of guidelines to prevent future disruptions. As Zoom transitions into becoming a default meeting platform for millions of individuals during the COVID-19 quarantine, USC is hopeful that their preventative measures are enough to curb more incidents like this in the future.
According to the Zoom Help Center, meeting hosts have access to all the call participants’ information on the meeting details page. The page tracks information such as the participants’ display name, the type of device used, IP address, location and when they entered and left the call. Therefore, zoombombers may be able to be identified.
As the technology continues to develop further and with the rest of the academic semester being moved online, USC students and faculty will have to wait to see how effective these new policies and procedures will be.
Update on March 30: The story has been updated with information from an email that Willow Bay, dean of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, sent to students in COMM 200 on March 24, 2020.