“Zoombombers” share videos of child sexual abuse during Women’s Center symposium

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Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern University Women’s Center at 2000 Sheridan Rd. At its annual symposium over Zoom last Friday, infiltrators displayed pornographic images of child sex abuse on the screen.

James Pollard, Campus Editor

Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence.

The Northwestern Women’s Center was set to present an online version of its annual symposium on gender, education and progress on Friday, May 15 as the University celebrates 150 Years of Women/Womxn at Northwestern.

As Women’s Center program manager Sarah Brown began introducing Sekile Nzinga, the director of the Women’s Center, to a Zoom audience of about 60 people, infiltrators displayed pornographic videos featuring the sexual abuse of young children, using the “share screen” feature to share it with the audience. Directors from women’s centers and LGBTQ centers around the world were present, Brown said, ready to discuss their work.

After closing the meeting, organizers sent out another link, using Zoom’s waiting room feature as they had done the first time to let attendees into the call. But the infiltrators once again subjected attendees to the graphic, violent content.

“The phrase ‘Zoombombing’ is a problem in a way because it’s really broad and includes anyone who is unauthorized and annoying,” Brown said. “But what happened here was actually a crime — and one that did a lot of harm.”

The annual symposium spotlights the academic work of female and gender-diverse faculty, staff and administrators “whose work is often not celebrated,” said fifth-year RTVF doctoral candidate Lauren Herold, an advisory board member for the Women’s Center.

This year’s event came as universities around the country experience financial constraints due to the coronavirus pandemic. Bringing together women’s centers from around the country was especially important this year, Herold said, as tightening budgets put gender and sexuality studies at risk of defunding.

For Herold, who had been looking forward to being in a“really supportive space” and having those conversations about the importance of gender studies, the events made her “shaken and disturbed.” She sat frozen in her chair for an hour, staring at the screen, Herold told The Daily.

“I felt like the hard work of the staff who I care about and work with — all their hard work was ruined,” Herold said. “I was upset that so many were made to watch those videos, especially because most of the people on the call were women and transgender, non-conforming people — people who are more statistically likely to have experienced sexual violence. A few people on the call are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, so it was definitely traumatizing and re-traumatizing for folks.”

The display of the harmful videos seemed like a targeted attack against the “feminist event,” Herold said. Before attending a Zoom event later that evening, Herold said she asked the hosts to ensure a waiting room and password would be implemented. While the organizers were receptive, she said for the first half hour she felt on edge, anticipating it to happen again.

Herold said the University needs to offer a safe and more secure alternative to Zoom in response to the event.

“Folks who are marginalized and underrepresented and underserved are being targeted on Zoom,” Herold said. “It makes me really worried about continuing to use Zoom for public events, particularly events that are based around advocacy. I’m still freaked out about it.”

For those who work at the Women’s Center, the greatest concern is for the people who were present on the call, Brown said, including their partners from around the world who may not have the same support networks available at Northwestern.

Brown told The Daily she hopes the University will respond with a “sustained, trauma-informed outreach” for all people impacted by this event, or others like it that involve violence on a digital platform. The Women’s Center should be consulted about how that work occurs, Brown said, without being encumbered with the labor and expenses. For those who were already targeted, she said, having to take up that work is “a lot.”

The University has since enhanced its “Zoombombing” web page, according to a Friday afternoon email from Associate Vice President of Cyberinfrastructure David Carr and NUIT Director of Media and Technology Innovation Ken Panko. The page includes new security recommendations specific to meetings with only Northwestern participants or those that include non-Northwestern individuals. It also outlines instructions on how to respond to any meeting disturbances, highlighting ways to attempt to regain control and how to report the incident afterward.

Northwestern University Police are investigating Friday’s incident in collaboration with local and federal law enforcement partners, a University spokesperson confirmed to The Daily.

“While rare, these incidents have been impactful for those disrupted, and in some cases, the attacks were appalling,” a University spokesperson said in an email to The Daily. “The safety of our community remains our highest priority. Acts like this are not and will not be tolerated.”

More than 260,000 sessions have been held on Zoom’s platform since Northwestern moved most operations online, a University spokesperson told The Daily in an email. While Northwestern has received no reports that classes or private Zoom meetings have been disrupted, a few members of the community have reported disruptions during public-facing events, a University spokesperson said in the email.

The Northwestern University Office of Equity is also working to provide resources to those impacted.

For Herold, it has been heartening to see faculty from the Gender and Sexuality Studies program partner with staff at the Women’s Center to advocate about this issue to the University. The Women’s Center isn’t alone, she said, and she hopes more people help advocate.

“I’m someone who has experienced sexual violence in my life,” Herold said. “And being on that call almost replicated the experience of being assaulted to me. It felt to me like all of a sudden something scary was happening. This boundary was being violated and it was shocking and surprising…That was really troubling to know whoever this person was or these people were, that they’re looking to inflict violence and traumatize and retraumatize people. And I really hope that it doesn’t happen again.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Gender and Sexuality Studies is a program at Northwestern, not a department. The Daily regrets this error.

The article has also been updated to clarify that the images shared were videos.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @pamesjollard

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