The JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco was hosting its first public online Zoom event, a lecture with a member of its survivors’ speakers bureau on April 13, when center director Morgan Blum Schneider became aware of something.
“About 15 minutes before the end of the program, we noticed a few people who were trying to come in,” she said.
She quickly checked the names and saw they hadn’t RSVP’d, like other participants. “It was a red flag,” she said, and the accounts were swiftly removed.
That kind of vigilance is what synagogues and organizations need to employ to deal with the online threat of “zoombombing,” or the disruption of virtual events by harassment from outsiders. It’s another step in the long game of holding the line against anti-Semitism and trolling as it rears its head wherever it is people congregate, whether virtually or in person.
“Our sense of security and safety, both in the real world and online, are being tested,” Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said in an April 14 ADL webinar on preventing zoombombing, attended by more than 2,000 people from around the world.
Segal said that the ADL had become aware of several instances of anti-Semitic zoombombing, including: swastikas shown at a school board meeting and a Torah study session interrupted by slurs. (While zoombombing is nasty, experts say the range is limited; harassers may see names of participants and possibly their phone numbers, but they cannot hack into computers.)
Segal said, up to that point, there had been two types of harassment: anti-Semites directly targeting Jews, and trolls using hateful and anti-Semitic language for its ability to shock.
Extremist forums have been a source of information on how to disrupt meetings, and how to share screenshots of successful attempts, but so have mainstream platforms such as Twitter and Reddit.
No matter the source or the intention of the harassers, Segal said, the ADL is concerned whenever hateful speech is used to disrupt online spaces.
“Whether it comes from trolls or pranksters, whether it comes from more coherent extremists and their movements, hate and its purveyors never miss an opportunity to exploit a crisis,” he said.
Although zoombombing can mean the virtual disruption of any kind of online event, Zoom is the company that has quickly risen to the top of the pile for video-conferencing software, which means Zoom is being targeted more than other platforms.
Zoom’s chief product officer, Israel native Oded Gal, told webinar participants that his company — after pivoting from business software to virtual meeting software — saw its daily active user rate rise meteorically, from 10 million in February to 200 million in March.
“With that comes also this phenomenon of people disrupting meetings, unfortunately,” he said.
He credited input from the ADL as a push toward creating easier-to-use security features for the software.
“We heard loud and clear,” he said. “And we actually made changes to the product. A lot of it based on your direct feedback.”
Some of the advice Gal gave included using the virtual “waiting room” the software provides, where participants are allowed into the event by the host rather than joining the meeting immediately. A password for meetings, provided to people who sign up in advance, also provides a layer of protection.
Gal also recommended having a person other than the presenter monitoring the event and responding to problems, such as the need to remove a problem participant.
Another option, he said, is to disable the screen share function so that no one can share offensive images, which is something that happened (with anti-Semitic slurs and drawings) at a few Jewish virtual events, the ADL said.
Participants can be muted and meetings can be locked, and Gal said that all of these safety features were being made easier to access by putting them under a visible security tab. He also said an upcoming update would include a one-button way to report zoombombing to Zoom, and all these safety features are available to free accounts as well as paid.
Hate and its purveyors never miss an opportunity to exploit a crisis.
According to Dave Sifry, director of the ADL’s Silicon Valley Center for Technology and Society, security starts well before the meeting.
“Making sure you have the security defaults turned on, but also making sure you have at least one cohost and maybe even more depending on the size of the meeting,” he said. “And what that allows is for is, if multiple zoombombers come in or are disrupting the meeting.”
“It does seem that Zoom has caught up a bit, and turned on some of the features automatically,” said David Goldman, executive director of Congregation Emanu-El.
He said the San Francisco synagogue had already implemented several of the steps Gal mentioned, including having a staff “fire drill” to practice responding to harassment. It was part of the congregation’s overall focus on safety.
“Part of that is always security and privacy,” he said. “We’ve done a few things that have helped us over the past few weeks.”
One was to require pre-registration for online events and to set up protocols on where links are posted, as well as choosing the right kind of platform for each event, from Zoom to Facebook Live to YouTube.
Tips also have been provided locally. An April 3 newsletter from Rafael Brinner, director of Jewish community security at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, linked to several online resources for keeping events safe from interruption.
But the need to promote online events can be in conflict with the desire to keep them secure.
Rabbi Jaqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in Oakland said she’s aware that harassers might be looking for links to disrupt, but she also needs to make sure the synagogue’s virtual offerings are accessible to the community — including those who don’t normally attend services or events in person.
“We’re hoping other congregants who might not walk in might Zoom in,” she said.
She said keeping things more open has the advantage of increasing participation, although the synagogue is, of course, aware of the need for security.
“We’re trying to take advantage of some of the things Zoom has, like the waiting room,” she said.
Goldman said there’s always a balance between security and openness, and between privacy and participation.
“Sometimes those things conflict a little bit,” he said.
If there are too many steps, like asking for email registration and sending out passwords, some people may give up before joining. But if it’s left too open, there are risks of zoombombers.
Goldman said Emanu-El organizers consider this for every event. For example, for a recent Yizkor service, they decided to ask people to register by email (and receive a link in return) rather than posting an open link, and to turn off video sharing (as it’s not necessary for everyone’s face to be seen).
It’s all part of the ongoing discussion on how to make people feel safe.
“Meeting by meeting, session by session, service by service, really think about what you need,” Goldman urged.
That kind of decision-making is why the Holocaust Center is using not Zoom but another platform for its April 20 and 21 Yom Hashoah events, and structuring them more as presentations than as interactive discussions (thereby eliminating the use of chat and screen-sharing).
Even so, staff will be monitoring the events.
“We have to create a sacred and a safe space,” Blum Schneider said.