Pornography, Racial Slurs and Coordinated Attacks: How Zoom-Bombers Are Wreaking Havoc on Virtual 12-Step Meetings

Hackers have taken over the pandemic’s most popular teleconferencing tool to disrupt everything from classes to recovery meetings.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images

David S. felt centered. He had participated in a global meditation event, recited a prayer and found a comfortable spot on the sofa, nestled between two dozing golden retrievers. He normally preferred his breakfast nook for morning Zoom meetings because of its access to natural light, but at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, the glow in the living room was better.

As the 20-minute speaker booked for a virtual 12-step meeting organized out of West Hollywood (who asked to use his first name only for this story), David wanted a maximum amount of comfort while offering what those in the recovery community call sharing one’s “experience, strength and hope.” He opened a laptop, clicked the link and connected to find more than 50 attendees online. Many of the faces staring back were friendly ones, people he’d met during three and a half years of sobriety. There were others, though — he can’t say for sure how many — whom he didn't recognize. They introduced themselves after the meeting's announcements were read.

“It was like an ambush,” David explains of the coordinated attack, which saw multiple users unmute their computers at once, yell racist and anti-Semitic insults and utilize the screen-sharing feature to blast pornography. He then saw one use a drawing tool to cover an X-rated clip with a swastika. “The problem is you don’t immediately know where it’s coming from, so while you can kick them out, it isn’t easy when they are organized and there’s so many,” he says.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic has shut down nearly every aspect of normal life, 12-step recovery groups gathered across Los Angeles and in cities across the globe have also seen their spaces shuttered. Like so many meetings, both personal and professional, members moved their acts to virtual platforms like Zoom. For context, a Zoom spokesperson pointed to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan's April 1 blog post in which he writes that usage ballooned seemingly overnight, "far surpassing what we expected when we first announced our desire to help in late February." He added, "To put this growth in context, as of the end of December last year, the maximum number of daily meeting participants, both free and paid, conducted on Zoom was approximately 10 million. In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid."

Zoom-bombers — anonymous individuals who hijack a teleconference and cause disruptions by swearing, hurling insults and sharing violent or pornographic imagery and videos — weren't far behind. The disturbing trend reached a fever pitch over the past two weeks as Zoom has become the go-to platform for recovery, educators, corporations, small business owners and even social circles looking to connect during an unprecedented period of social distancing. Users have reported everything from teenage-style pranks like cursing, mooning and raising middle fingers on camera to shocking displays of gore, violence, racism, anti-Semitism, pornography and other disturbances. For alcoholics and drug addicts, the violations have also included the promotion of alcohol and drug imagery and verbal attacks. Prior to Saturday, David had experienced Zoom-bombing many times, so often that the most recent violation felt tame compared with previous days. “I will say, though, I have seen this weird progression. When it first started, I thought people were blowing it out of proportion. It was a nuisance but it felt like funny little pranks. It’s moved from that to this really fucking disturbing situation.”

Another 12-step attendee, Arty, who, like David, prefers to only use his first name, tells THR that he logged on for a virtual meeting last week to hear a speaker celebrate a two-year sobriety anniversary. "He was saying how nervous and excited he was to share on this special day, and then it felt like the room was suddenly hijacked. There was a cacophony of screen sharing and loud noises followed by racist imagery that looked really violent. I looked away but before I did, I noticed that members were bailing left and right,” he says. Arty said that he was not shocked that bombers had infiltrated the meeting but found their language surprising. He spoke to one member who said the violation made them want to drink: “It’s so unsettling that a place where people come for recovery could be misappropriated in that way," he says.

At the end of March, the Boston FBI issued a federal warning that teleconferences and online classes could be attacked by hackers along with instructions to help mitigate threats. Those recommendations include not sharing meeting links and making meetings private, which is easier said than done for recovery groups: Isolation can be a trigger for those dealing with sex or food addictions, substance abuse and even gambling, so in an effort to spread the word about meetings, members have been actively sharing online meeting guides on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and file-sharing services like Google Drive, making the lists more accessible to those in need. 

Zoom has worked to help educate users on how to adapt and avoid the disruptions, posting guidelines and even a detailed video tutorial featuring executive Farah Faraclas that, as of April 6, had been viewed nearly 80,000 times. THR reached out to a Zoom spokesperson who said those at the company strongly condemn the actions of the Zoom-bombers. Zoom advocates the use of waiting rooms, passwords, muted controls and limited screen sharing to help prevent them. “We are listening to our community of users to help us evolve our approach," the spokesperson added.

Executives also encourage users to report disturbances, and Sunday during an interview with CNN's Brian Stelter, Yuan expressed that his company moved too fast in accommodating a crush of new users and said that it wasn't prepared. "Our service was built to serve business and enterprise customers," Yuan told Stelter of its core model, which expanded quickly to accommodate recovery groups, weddings, happy hours and just about any gathering not permitted under social distancing guidelines.

The changes haven't come fast enough for some, however. The New York City Department of Education informed schools and educators to stop using the tool in favor of other platforms like Microsoft. “The safety and security of our staff and students is at the forefront of every decision we make around remote learning, and for that reason, we have asked schools to transition away from using Zoom as soon as possible,” a spokesperson told Gizmodo.

Nanea R., a woman in long-term recovery on the West Coast, posted an essay on Medium to help address concerns of her peers about Zoom-bombers. What has been concerning to her, she tells THR, is how the individuals have created games out of the disruptions by using Discord, a digital distribution platform designed for video gaming communities. (A Reddit thread offering step-by-step instructions for how to disrupt Zoom meetings was banned by the platform "due to a violation of Reddit’s content policy against vote brigading or vote manipulation.")

"They get points and move up levels for doing certain actions, like hate speech, posting pornography. We had one kid in a meeting pretend he was 'new' and raised his hand for a 60-day chip. When he was called on he said, 'Awwww. Is this for me? Really? Well, fuck you!'" Nanea explains. "Being a gamer myself, I probably would have done the same back in the day when I was younger. Fortunately, most of us grow out of that behavior."

Some Zoom-bombers have taken to promoting their own work by either live-streaming or posting their work on platforms like YouTube, which breaches the anonymity of virtual 12-step attendees. "There's a questionable limit to anonymity now that you know people are recording these and, in the box, people can see your name, face or photo there," David explains. Nanea says that Zoom users who have been posting their names in their profiles have been tracked down on other social media platforms where they are harassed by the Zoom-bombers. THR has learned that some stars have disappeared from their regular meetings while Zoom-bombers have resorted to using images of famous people as their avatars to gain access to groups or try to get their screens unmuted.

While anonymity is definitely a concern to some members, others say their priority is making sure that they can maintain virtual spaces for everyone, especially those who are new in recovery and in need of a place to connect. "Some people have become so freaked out by these events that they don't join online meetings any more," Nanea offers. "Other meetings have gone 'underground.' This is unfortunate because we need new people who need help to be able to find us." 

Now maybe more than ever. According to multiple reports, alcohol and cannabis sales have increased during the global health crisis. Liquor stores and cannabis outposts were deemed essential businesses and the subject of substance abuse has even been a talking point at L.A. County's daily press briefings as of late. Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health has said not to be deceived by the rise in liquor sales, however: "It's not really consumption that is actually up," she said April 3, explaining that while sales may have increased across grocery and liquor stores, people have just been forced to purchase alcohol in new locations outside of bars and restaurant, which are now only offering takeout and delivery. 

Ferrer did say that it is not uncommon, however, for people to be turning to substances as a way to cope with the stress, anxiety and fear of facing the novel coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of 74,807 people across the globe as of Monday night. "For those who are struggling with addiction, this Is a really hard time," she said. "The recreational use of alcohol in moderate amounts may be appropriate for some, [but] for others, it's not." 

The Zoom trend has had its benefits. Nanea says that she's attended virtual meetings and witnessed those in recovery connecting across states, borders and seas. "I Zoomed into a meeting the other night and a friend who used to live in Los Angeles and is now in Jerusalem was in the meeting," she said. "It was wonderful to see him. There have actually been some amazingly powerful and beautiful moments in these meetings. I am especially moved by how many new people are in the Zoom rooms. What a very strange time to be newly sober."

David just wishes he knew ultimately what drives the Zoom-bombers to continue hacking into previously safe spaces. "Is it a specific demographic? Is there a concentrated motive or is it a bunch of bored kids?" he asks. Though the answer may never be revealed, he hopes that his peers in the program can shake off the threats and replicate the connection they forged in a physical world, standing side by side.

"I just want us to get back to that as much as possible," he says, "and that includes having the safety of a regular meeting and seeing everyone's face."