A virtual event memorializing the late Kentucky author and activist bell hooks was interrupted Tuesday evening when, what appeared to be, burner accounts crashed it with bigoted comments and lewd images.
The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington organized the event. It featured a lineup of Kentucky writers, poets and artists who either worked with hooks or were inspired by her words and activism.
“She is beloved in the literary community,” said Jessica Mohler, the center’s director of marketing and communications. “She is a treasure to our state, and her passing was heartbreaking and sad. And we wanted to come together as a community and share her words and… do what bell did best, which was show love.”
Mohler said they kept the event, which had approximately 200 attendees, “open mic,” allowing people to mute and unmute themselves because they wanted to give attendees the chance to speak.
A little more than 20 minutes into the program, there was a “commotion” that appeared to be a couple arguing with each other.
“What I realized now is that that couple was kind of like bait,” Mohler said. “And then it started… they just started popping up, and it was everything from racial, bigoted slurs” to sexually explicit videos shown.
She said the images and comments were coming from multiple Zoom squares. Mohler yelled at the offenders, telling them they weren’t welcomed and needed to leave. After several minutes, staff made the call to shut down the virtual chat.
Early in the pandemic, agencies like the FBI warned of “Zoombombing” attacks, when trolls invade a virtual room of a teleconferencing platform like Zoom, spewing out hateful rhetoric and crude images.
Civil rights groups have urged Zoom to do more to stop “Zoombombing.”
In April 2020, leadership at the nonprofit Color of Change told NPR they had proof of coordinated “Zoombombing” campaigns, where attackers used social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, and the online bulletin board 4chan, to post Zoom links and passwords.
Carnegie staff received an email from Zoom with the subject line “Your Zoom meeting is at risk,” and a timestamp of 6:22 p.m. Tuesday evening.
The email, viewed by WFPL News, notified the center that the link to a meeting scheduled through their account had been posted on the feed of a Twitter account, and laid out some security recommendations.
Mohler said they were already in the midst of the hooks memorial, so staff didn’t receive the email ahead of the attack.
The Twitter account that the email linked to is still live, and lists a broad range of links, from cultural events to school meetings and support groups.
Mohler said they reported the incident to Zoom and Twitter, and plan to file a report with local police.
In a statement provided to WFPL News, a Zoom spokesperson said the company “strongly condemns such behavior.”
“We take meeting disruptions extremely seriously and, where appropriate, we work closely with law enforcement authorities. We encourage users to report any incidents of this kind to Zoom and law enforcement authorities so the appropriate action can be taken against offenders,” the statement read.
The spokesperson said they’ve been trying to educate Zoom users on how to make their virtual meetings more secure, “including recommending that users avoid sharing private meeting links and passwords publicly on websites, social media or other public forums, and encouraging anyone hosting large-scale or public events to utilize Zoom’s webinar solution.”
The Carnegie Center didn’t use the webinar function because it was important to have the memorial be an open dialogue, Mohler said. She added that, in the end, the attackers didn’t win.
Carnegie staff shut down the initial virtual room and quickly sent out a new link. Mohler said they were back together “within minutes.”
“I just think that is important, that we did our best to repress the hate speech in the moment, and that we pivoted and we reconvened at a new location… to sit there and endure that, and still manage to come back, it speaks to our strength, it speaks to humanity.”
That’s how hooks would have wanted it, for the group to return, Mohler believes.
She said they ended the event as they had been planning all along, by reading a quote from hooks, which she wrote in her 2000 book “All About Love.”
“I feel our nation’s turning away from love… moving into a wilderness of spirit from which we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger in this movement, and to call for a return to love.”