UT-Austin tightens online security after Black males encounter racist ‘Zoom-bombing’ of virtual community meeting

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Photo Credit: Alekka Hernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This story references a derogatory racial slur. 

A virtual meeting with Black male students and faculty was hijacked by unidentified individuals using racial slurs and derogatory aliases Monday. 

The meeting was hosted by the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males, a faculty and staff led academic initiative promoting the development and success of Black men on campus. The hijackers joined their meeting on Zoom, a videoconferencing platform made popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, and used the n-word and other derogatory racial slurs, director Ryan Sutton said.

“We just ended the meeting … and made sure we had touch points with our students,” Sutton said. “This could be traumatic for a lot of students … like someone said, this is some of their first times experiencing overt racism … to their face.”

As a result of the racist harassment, the University will now require students to be authenticated by the UT Austin Zoom system and use a Zoom application to join classes and meetings, Vice Provost David Platt announced in a campuswide email Wednesday. This authentication will validate users as members of the UT community.

Students must claim their UT Zoom account by visiting utexas.zoom.us before they can join a meeting or class. 

Sutton said the meeting was planned to discuss COVID-19 and how students can maintain focus on personal goals during a time of change and instability.

Hours before the incident, the organization invited members to join the meeting by posting a link to the Zoom conference on their public Twitter account. To prevent similar incidents, Sutton said he is thinking of instituting password protections for future Zoom meetings or requiring students to register for the meetings. 

“It hurts me that that's the way we have to go, because what that means is maybe lower attendance and participation because you put up more barriers people have to cross in order to get into the meeting,” Sutton said. “But unfortunately that's what we'll have to do in order to safeguard those who do attend the meeting.”

The FBI reported that disruptions of videoconferencing platforms, or “Zoom-bombing,” are emerging as more people are using these platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a news release Monday. Making video conferences private and refraining from sharing links to conferences on social media are among the FBI's recommendations in the release.

UT President Greg Fenves said in an email Wednesday that the University is working on improving online security to prevent similar events and ensure digital platforms are only being used by the UT community.

“We are investigating the racist Zoom bombing of a meeting of UT students, staff & faculty,” Fenves said on Twitter on Monday night. “It was reprehensible. If the perpetrators are members of the UT community, they will be disciplined.”

Sutton said he appreciates the UT administration for acknowledging the incident and hopes students recognize the University is not taking it lightly. He said this is part of a “pattern of incidents” and highlights the political and cultural society we live in today.

“We haven't moved to a post-racialized society,” Sutton said. “Whether or not you experience it and see it for yourself, it still exists. … These things, as much as they happen overtly, (they happen) even more so covertly.”

Sutton said he wants the Zoom-bombers to realize how hurtful and impactful their behavior was. However, he said the center’s mission of supporting one another still remains strong and that students of color will continue to have an impactful voice on campus.

“The Heman (Sweatt) Center for Black Males sends our deepest apologies to those who participated in our first Zoom meeting earlier this afternoon,” the center said on its official Twitter page. “We are still a space for black men to organize and uplift one another. We denounce the actions of the hackers in our call and are working to better our newly found space on Zoom.”