'Zoom-bombing' attack highlights need for anti-racism work on campus: UW student group

Students at the University of Waterloo say a recent cyber-attack on an event discussing race is highlighting the need for and commitment to anti-racism work on campus.

Students speak out after virtual event hijacked with racist comments, inappropriate images

A person walks by the University of Waterloo (UW) sign on campus on Feb. 10, 2020. Some students on campus are calling for more anti-racism work. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Students at the University of Waterloo say a recent cyber-attack on an event discussing race is highlighting the need for anti-racism work on campus.

On Jan. 26, the university's Racial Advocacy for Inclusion, Solidarity and Equity (RAISE) group co-hosted an event on Zoom discussing the intersection of racial and climate justice.

RAISE organizers say the community event, which was attended by more the 90 people, was hijacked by a group of people who bombarded the chat section with anti-Black, anti-Semitic and white supremacist comments. At some point, someone hacked the screen and sketched inappropriate images, organizers say. Moderators eventually removed the offenders from the event.

"This was obviously violent, disruptive and essentially hate speech," said Zainab Ashraf, co-coordinator of RAISE.

The group went on to share concerns in a social media post, which gained the attention of many people, including university president Feridun Hamdullahpur, who tweeted his condemnation of the incident and commitment to address racism on campus.

The university is investigating to determine whether students played a role and if so, it says it will take disciplinary action.

The incident is being referred to as a "Zoom-bombing," a term used when people take over digital meetings and cause mayhem or post disturbing content.

Student reaction

Ashraf said the incident isn't shocking as the group has previously been subject to racist sentiments. However, Ashraf, along with group member Hanan Thibeh, said the university needs to do more when it comes to its anti-racism work.

"What happens after the pandemic ends where … we don't have protection of an online event. What happens there," Thibeh said, sharing concerns about the escalation of online attacks.

Both Thibeh and Ashraf said the university's acknowledgement of the incident through a tweet isn't enough and that a formal statement should have been released.

"I think it's OK to place commitments out and to say that you are for doing something, but if there's no action behind your words, then students are going to continuously be vulnerable," Thibeh said.

"What we're looking for on a more of a structural level is transparency. What we're looking for is to be a part of discussions on hiring practices of staff and faculty. I think we're looking into better understanding how do we make trauma response and support."

School response

The university says anti-racism work is "front and centre" for school administration.

"Waterloo strongly condemns this event. We've been working really hard on the anti-Black racism file at Waterloo and anti-racism and anti-oppression in general and working so tremendously hard on equity, diversity and inclusion," said Charmaine Dean, vice-president, research and international, who is involved in anti-racism work on campus.

Dean said the university recently came out with its President's Anti-Racism Taskforce (PART) that promotes recommendations for addressing anti-racism and anti-oppression.

A representative with the school said to CBC in an email that the university has hosted hundreds of meetings with BIPOC members on campus to tackle racism.

It also introduced two new positions, including a counsellor focused on Black student support and a role as senior manager for anti-racism response.

In terms of method of communicating its response related to the incident, a representative said the school aims to match its response with whichever platform the students are using, in this case Twitter.

The school said it will also be announcing two new measures to tackle anti-racism in the coming weeks.

'Zoom-bombings' more frequent

RAISE is among a number of groups across Canada that have fallen victim to "Zoom-bombings" on the video conferencing platform.

Around the same time as RAISE's event, an online social event for Black students at Dalhousie University in Halifax was hijacked by people who hurled racist and homophobic comments.

A Zoom spokesperson told CBC in an email that the platform condemns these types of incidents and is working to enhance safety features.

"We have recently updated a number of default settings and added features to help hosts more easily access in-meeting security controls, including controlling screen sharing, removing and reporting participants, and locking meetings," the spokesperson said.

"We have also been educating users on security best practices for setting up their meetings, including recommending that users avoid sharing private meeting links and passwords publicly on websites, social media, or other public forums."

The spokesperson recommended users report these incidents to law enforcement authorities.

RAISE said it has implemented more security measures through the platform for future events.