REFORMA Virtual Meeting Harassed by Racist Zoombombers

On January 23, during its virtual National General Membership meeting, REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) was disrupted by a person or people using racial slurs and misogynistic hate speech. The infiltration highlighted the discrepancies between the association’s desire for an open, inclusive gathering and an increasing need for added security in an online environment.

REFORMA logoOn January 23, during its virtual National General Membership meeting, REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) was disrupted by a person or people using racial slurs and misogynistic hate speech. This form of online harassment—known as Zoombombing, although not specific to the Zoom platform—involves an intrusion of outsiders into a videoconference session, and can range from annoying to threatening. In the case of the REFORMA incident, the infiltration was malicious in intent and highlighted the discrepancies between the association’s desire for an open, inclusive gathering and an increasing need for added security in an online environment.

The incident took place during the American Library Association (ALA)’s LibLearnX conference. REFORMA, one of the National Associations of Librarians of Color and an ALA affiliate, was about 25 minutes into the meeting, which had begun without any issues with approximately 50 or 60 attendees. Treasurer Denice Adkins was sharing an update on the success of REFORMA’s November 2021 conference and the organization’s solid financial standing when an attendee, listed as Cameron C., broke in, telling her to shut up. Another person, also listed as Cameron C., began yelling and playing an audio clip containing racial slurs on repeat.

The audio “was pretty aggressive towards Black folks. That was the most the most shocking part, [given] who we represent and who we try to support,” REFORMA President Nicanor Diaz told LJ. “That’s what shook most of our members—you don’t go into a REFORMA meeting during ALA and expect something like this to happen. So, obviously, none of us were ready.”

Diaz, the meeting’s original host, had transferred host controls to another executive committee member so he could concentrate on admitting guests to the session. The host immediately ejected the perpetrators, but approximately seven other people named Cameron C. popped up and continued to harass the group—whether they were the same person with a cloned account or individuals all using the same name, Diaz was unable to tell, he said. The verbal abuse continued for another couple of minutes until Diaz reclaimed his host privileges and ended the meeting.

Madeline Peña, former president of REFORMA National and its Los Angeles Chapter, and associate director for community engagement and outreach at Los Angeles Public Library, found the event “nerve wracking, disruptive, and scary.” As one of the meeting’s cohosts, she tried to help stop the intruder(s), but they had too many accounts logged in to shut them all down. “It was extremely disturbing,” Peña told LJ. “All of a sudden you heard those very hurtful words out of nowhere. I think we all got rattled.”

Diaz restarted the meeting because “I wanted to give some space for members to be able to talk about what they just experienced, if they wanted to share anything,” he said—also, added Peña, because Adkins had been in the middle of discussing good news about REFORMA’s finances. When he did, Cameron C. was in the virtual waiting room, but Diaz did not admit them. About half of the original participants logged back on; “We were able to continue with the meeting,” he said, “although at that point we felt like the damage was done, and nobody could really focus or concentrate on what was happening.”

 

SECURITY VS. ACCESS

Although Zoom has been criticized for its security flaws, in this case the infiltrators did not need to hack into the meeting; it was open to all, whether or not they were REFORMA members, although registration was required. Links to the session had been shared on REFORMA’s website and Twitter account. “We try to be inclusive and allow even non-REFORMA members to come to our general membership meetings,” said Diaz.

The REFORMA executive committee met after the incident and decided that, for at least the next couple of general membership and board meetings, invitations and registration links would be emailed to current members rather than shared on social media or the association listserv. To continue allowing non-members to participate, guests may be asked to provide contact information before receiving login information.

For future virtual meetings, Diaz plans to assign one person whose only job is to moderate participants and chat comments, and end the session immediately if someone behaves disruptively. Because REFORMA had never experienced an incident of this type, he explained, he had not felt the need to dedicate a role to monitoring the audience. “I was basically running the meeting and keeping an eye on all of that at the same time, and clearly that didn’t work.”

ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall, a REFORMA member, was attending another conference session at the time, but heard about the incident shortly after it happened. ALA conference sessions are accessed through secure links given only to participants who register in advance, she told LJ, but the association has not previously mandated the same for its independent affiliates. “We always want to make sure that all of the organizations within the ecosystem, including our affiliates like REFORMA, have the opportunity to convene,” she said. “They had made the choice to not require the preregistration because they wanted their meeting to be open, especially to those who may be considering joining REFORMA or may be curious about REFORMA’s work.”

The incident echoes a similar attack during a March 2020 American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) town hall, in which a participant repeatedly used a racial slur in the chat. Organizers shut the meeting down after ten minutes of disruption. Another “abhorrent” Zoombombing incident occurred at an ALA Council Forum meeting during the 2021 Virtual Conference, after which “plans were put into place to control the attendance at the fora while maintaining the open meeting concept for all ALA meetings,” according to the Council Committee Report Form. In the wake of the REFORMA occurrence, ALA plans to establish security prerequisites for all organizations and affiliates that want to hold virtual meetings during its convenings, Hall said, and plans to post an explanation of new safety protocols on the ALA website—existing suggestions can be found here.

Alongside the proliferation of book and curriculum challenges in libraries, Hall noted, “We see that there’s a growing intentionality [on the part of harassers] about finding convenings of groups that are either bringing together Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, or that are speaking on race and anti-racism.” And it’s not only associations such as ALA that need to step up their efforts to keep members safe. “I think as that intentionality grows, so too must [Zoom’s] security measures.”

“We have been deeply upset to hear about these types of incidents, and Zoom strongly condemns such behavior,” a Zoom spokesperson told LJ. “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. We have a number of default settings and features to help hosts more easily access in-meeting security controls, including controlling screen sharing, removing and reporting participants, and locking meetings, among other actions.”

REFORMA issued a statement on its website, and ALA responded with a statement of its own in support. While there has been speculation among meeting participants and REFORMA members about who might be behind the attack, no one has been identified. Incidents of Zoombombing that promote racist agendas have become increasingly common in settings ranging from school board meetings to online classes to national panel discussions, and can be prosecuted as a federal or state crime. The Anti-Defamation League’s Zoom Safety Checklist, includes actions such as disabling autosaved chats and using IDs specific to each meeting. Zoom suggests that users lock meetings in progress and disable controls that would let non-hosts share screens or transfer files.

Diaz used Zoom’s mechanism to report the intruders while they were in the virtual waiting room before the meeting restarted, but at press time had not received a response from the company.

“What happens to one part of that community happens to the entire community,” Hall told LJ. “We don’t take instances like this lightly.”

“REFORMA members, and everyone who was in the meeting—I just feel for all of us. But at the same time, we’re resilient,” said Peña. “We’re learning from this experience.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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