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By Claudia Sachs

The virus of hatred and bigotry is on the rise in the United States, and now it’s digitally creeping into our classrooms, offices, and bedrooms. As the number of cases of the COVID-19 virus is on the rise and schools and houses of worship have shuttered their doors, the global disease of hatred has found a powerful new platform: Zoom calls. Zoom is a video-conferencing tool that has become a trusted communications forum for many schools, companies and families across the country, but the rapid expansion of Zoom conferencing has come at a price.

 “Zoom-bombing,” or the act of intentionally entering a Zoom call to cause disruption or chaos, has become more common in the past few weeks as people hiding behind false identities spread hate to unsuspecting participants. Zoom-bombers have disrupted classes at the University of Southern California with “racist and vile language,” targeted Jewish student groups with threats and images of swastikas, and flooded meetup groups with racial slurs and targeted messages. Some have organized Zoom-bombing raids by gathering an online group to simultaneously infiltrate and interrupt a Zoom call.

Last week, I experienced a hateful act of Zoom-bombing first-hand. As I was leading a Zoom yoga class for my high school in Virginia, an anonymous student screen-shared a large, closeup image of Hitler raising his right hand. Others screen-shared sexually explicit images, and one user switched to the screen name “ISIS lover.”

As a 16-year-old Jewish high school student, I felt helpless, afraid, and concerned, worried that perhaps I was being targeted because of my faith. I was shocked that people were intentionally spreading bigotry during a peaceful high school yoga class designed to alleviate stress during this pandemic.

How can educators, families, and organizations protect themselves from the pain, embarrassment, and fear that Zoom-bombers try to create?

The first step to block Zoom-bombers is to change the settings on your Zoom calls. Zoom offers many digital safety features like locking a meeting, preventing participants from screen-sharing (click the arrow next to “screen share” in the bottom of the screen and select “only host can share”), muting all participants, enabling a Zoom call password, disabling private chat, removing disruptive participants and utilizing the “waiting room” feature that allows the host to accept or decline meeting participants.

The second step is to keep links to enter Zoom calls private. Send them only to the participants you want on the call and do not publish them on social media where anyone can see them and gain access to your call.

The final step is to continue to hold Zoom accountable for protecting its users from cyber attacks. In response to the rise in Zoom-bombing, Zoom recently announced new efforts to address security issues.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan also formed a security-focused council and advisory board at the company. But Zoom has a further responsibility to protect marginalized groups from experiencing even more targeted, hateful acts. As Dr. Dennis Johnson suggests in his petition to Zoom Video Communications, Inc., we must call on Zoom to put measures in place to discourage and prevent discriminatory acts on all calls. Zoom should hire a chief diversity officer to “mitigate issues of discrimination and inequity.” Zoom should also add technology to auto-flag people who post hateful messages and images.

Ensuring the safety of Zoom users is vital to the future of digital connection and learning. But how can we use technology to combat the larger issues of antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and hatred in this age of social distancing and digital learning?

Read articles and books about people of different faiths, backgrounds, races and beliefs. Be an upstander and an ally for targeted communities, not only by refraining from participating in hateful acts but also by calling out hateful behavior when you see it and by standing in solidarity with those who are attacked.

Use digital connection for positive change by calling or emailing friends and family, marginalized community members, or people from different cultures around the world. Donate to organizations committed to combating hate and uplifting others. Research the educational standards for anti-hate and anti-bias curriculum in your state and then contact your representatives to call for action on those policies.

We all need to educate ourselves about bigotry and bias, use digital safety features on our Zoom calls, and hold Zoom accountable for protecting its users from Zoom-bombing. We must work to remove the virus of hatred and ignorance that is permeating our digital communities and lives.

Claudia Sachs is high school student in Richmond.