What is "Zoombombing" and Who is Behind It?

  • May 4, 2020
coronavirus

On March 24, 2020, a white supremacist interrupted a webinar about antisemitism hosted by a Massachusetts Jewish student group by pulling his shirt collar down to reveal a swastika tattoo on his chest. A day later, a similar incident occurred in California when someone disrupted an online class hosted by a JCC (Jewish Community Center); the perpetrator launched into a minutes-long, profanity-laced, antisemitic rant and removed his shirt to display a swastika tattoo on his chest. The Center on Extremism examined screenshots of the individual behind both incidents and believes him to be Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer, a known white supremacist and hacker.

As documented by ADL, Auernheimer—also known as “weev”—has a long history of publicly expressing his antisemitic and racist views and exploiting technology in order to gain attention. In 2016, Auernheimer claimed credit for sending white supremacist fliers to thousands of networked printers on college campuses around the country. The fliers blamed Jews for destroying the country “through mass immigration and degeneracy” and advertised the neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer. A few months later, in two subsequent waves of fliering, Auernheimer depicted Jews being killed and raped, and called for supporting and defending acts of violence against anyone he perceived as “anti-white.” Later that same year, Auernheimer also participated in a harassment campaign against Jewish journalists on Twitter.

Auernheimer has referred to himself as a “white nationalist hacktivist,” and previously was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison, where he served slightly more than a year on federal charges related to computer hacking.  That conviction and sentence were overturned in 2014 for improper venue issues.  In a piece on The Daily Dot, he describes himself as “a long-time critic of Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda.” Auernheimer also expressed these views in a 2014 post on The Daily Stormer, in which he ranted against “the Jews” for building “an empire of wickedness the likes the world has never seen.” In 2009, he created several videos containing antisemitic ramblings and comments, which alerted the FBI to Auernheimer’s location; the FBI warned him not to go near Jewish congregations or agencies.

As the coronavirus pandemic has led to more people spending time at home and conducting school and business online, an increasing focus has been placed on certain technologies and their ability to facilitate hate and harassment. Reports of “Zoombombing,” a reference to the popular video conferencing platform Zoom in which virtual meetings are disrupted by graphic or threatening messages, have quickly garnered attention across the country. Inside Higher Ed reported incidents targeting virtual classrooms at Arizona State University and the University of Southern California, as well as a children’s storytelling session in New Jersey. According to NBC News, during a virtual Torah lesson on March 22, multiple people interrupted the session by sharing antisemitic images and language. In Thousand Oaks, California, an online school board meeting was cut short after someone shared pornographic images, as well as a Nazi flag and swastika. These reports have become so widespread that the FBI issued a warning about the hijacking of video conferences and online classrooms on March 30.

Across various social media platforms, extremists have already seized on the coronavirus pandemic as a vehicle to spread their hate and conspiracies. While some Zoombombing incidents can be attributed to internet trolls without particularly malicious intentions, there is concern that extremists are also increasingly exploiting this newfound reliance on video conferencing technology to target certain groups or advance their hateful messages.

There is increasing evidence that Zoombombing attacks are being coordinated or encouraged on a range of mainstream and fringe online platforms. Various reports, including articles from Insider and PCMag, indicate that some incidents are being perpetrated by “bored” teenagers and “pranksters” who are using provocative content to increase their followings on social media platforms like TikTok. However, these conversations are also happening in online spaces frequented by extremists, and the result is Zoombombing incidents which are not only disruptive, but threatening or targeted harassment based on the specific identity of meeting hosts or participants.

An April 3, 2020, New York Times article described Zoombombing campaigns being promoted on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Discord, Reddit, and 4chan; the Center on Extremism has documented similar conversations emerging on extremist channels on Telegram. On April 2, an article published by VICE reported that users on 8kun—the website formerly known as 8chan —had encouraged a Zoombombing campaign against a Jewish school in Philadelphia. One post reportedly “provided links to the Zoom calls of teachers at the Jewish school, with instructions to ‘really freak them out’” and included the extremist slang term “boogaloo”—a term described by ADL as “a catchphrase for mass violence.”

In several cases, solemn commemorations of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed annually in many Jewish communities and held this year April 20-21), were disrupted by Zoombombing incidents. Two Zoombombers interrupted a Holocaust commemoration in Argentina with displays of child pornography. A memorial service held by the Jewish youth group Morasha Germany was disrupted by a coordinated group of attackers who posted swastikas and voiced antisemitic slurs.  A live online commemoration, convened by Israel's embassy in Berlin and featuring remarks by a Dutch Holocaust survivor, was disrupted by images of Hitler, pornographic images and antisemitic slogans. At least one of the Zoombombers yelled “Palestine!” At an online Holocaust memorial program run by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, students and teachers learning about the experience of children during the Holocaust were exposed to profanity, pornography, swastikas and antisemitic slurs.

Jewish groups around the world have been harassed in Zoombombing incidents. Jewish schools, synagogues, nonprofit organizations, and cultural institutions have been targeted by antisemitic language and images specifically intended to offend and intimidate Jewish audiences.

  • April 1: A weekly Talmud class led by a rabbi at a synagogue near Detroit, Michigan, was interrupted by someone wearing paramilitary apparel and playing “Nazi music.” A second Zoombomber joined the call a few minutes later and pointed a rifle and handgun into the camera. Later, a third person joined and disrupted the call.
  • April 1: BBC reported that an online synagogue service was infiltrated by Zoombombers who shared antisemitic messages in the chat with the 200+ congregants who were on the call.
  • March 31: Antisemitic memes—including one alleging “the Holocaust never happened”—were shared by Zoombombers during Yeshiva University President Ari Berman’s remarks to the student body, according to a report by Jewish Journal.
  • March 31: An online Torah study session hosted by a synagogue in Massachusetts was Zoombombed with hateful language and epithets.
  • March 31: A panel about “Leadership in Times of Crisis” hosted by Masa Israel was Zoombombed by individuals who joined the call and made sexual remarks.
  • March 31: During a discussion hosted by a Jewish women’s group, a Zoombomber used the screen sharing feature to show their web browser, which was open to a Google image search of “KKK.” They then shared graphic drawings and said the n-word.
  • On March 30, multiple people joined a virtual game night hosted by ChiTribe—an organization that connects young Jewish people in Chicago—and took control of the screen, sharing graphic images and shouting offensive and antisemitic profanities.
  • March 30: In Canada, during a webinar hosted by the Canada Antisemitism Education Foundation (CAEF), someone could reportedly be heard saying “Sieg Heil” as racist messages and pornographic images were shown on the screen.
  • March 30: A large Jewish nonprofit organization was hosting a call with over 100 people on when multiple people joined and loudly said “death to the Jews” and “Heil Hitler.” The n-word was also used many times and pornographic images were shared on the screen.
  • March 27: A synagogue in Maryland reported that their Shabbat services were interrupted by antisemitic slurs, including “Heil Hitler” and “Jewish scum.” The Zoombombers, one of whom had a swastika tattoo, also shared other antisemitic statements and one exposed his genitals to the group.
  • March 27: A synagogue in Connecticut reported being Zoombombed with antisemitic messages during their Shabbat services.

As schools at all levels—from preschool lessons to college lectures— have transitioned to online distance learning, virtual classrooms and student group meetings have been a frequent target for Zoombombers.

  • April 1: Multiple classes at the University of Washington have been targeted, including a biostatistics seminar when a Zoombomber wrote the n-word on the screen. According to a report in the student newspaper, messages in the chat also “called students racist slurs, specifically targeting Asian students with xenophobic remarks about the coronavirus and threatened to ‘shoot up’ one student’s house. "
  • April 1: At a high school in Miami, Florida, a teacher reported that her Zoom video class was interrupted by multiple people wearing masks, playing music, and showing pornographic images to the students.
  • March 30: A virtual meeting hosted by the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males at the University of Texas was interrupted when someone started using racial slurs.
  • March 30: During a Zoombombing incident in a virtual Massachusetts eighth-grade classroom, the perpetrator played video footage of the 2019 mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 51 people dead. They also posted a racist epithet and antisemitic language before the teacher ended the class, according to the school superintendent.
  • March 26: Dennis Johnson reported that his virtual dissertation defense at California State University Long Beach was the target of a Zoombombing attack when someone wrote the n-word and shared graphic images on the screen.
  • March 31: The Binghampton University student paper reported that an “Intro to African American Literature” class taught by the school’s director of undergraduate Africana studies was targeted by Zoombombers who used racist slurs against black students.

Zoombombers are also targeting local government virtual meetings, which in many cases are required by law to be open to the public.

  • March 31: The Orange County Register reported that a Laguna Beach City Council (CA) meeting was disrupted by pornographic and profane annotations on the screen, followed later by “a live sex scene.” Details about how to join the meeting had been posted publicly by the city prior to the call.
  • March 31: The first virtual meeting held by the City Commission in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was interrupted by someone shouting profanities and racial slurs.
  • March 30: A virtual meeting of the Grosse Ile Township (MI) Board of Trustees had to be ended early after multiple people made racially and sexually charged comments. According to The Detroit News, multiple insensitive comments focused on Chinese and Asian people, in particular.
  • March 26: At the start of a virtual Salem (MA) City Council meeting, hate-filled posts immediately began populating the chat. As reported in The Salem Gazette, these comments included "anti-Semitic, racist and derogatory language aimed at members of the 11-member council, from attacking their likeness and religions to throwing out wholly inappropriate profanity and accusations.”

Further examples of antisemitic Zoombombing in the U.S. are available on ADL’s Tracker of Antisemitic Incidents and our HEAT Map.