Zoom-bomber disrupts NABJ-NAHJ session with ‘wildly uninventive’ burst of pornography, panelists say

It began as most informational Zoom sessions do: A grid of faces and names tuned into a virtual room. Then, in a flash, things got awkward.

Porn flooded the screen. Obscenities echoed through the speakers. The session had been Zoom-bombed.

“I thought a panelist was going to share about their work,”said Siani Colón, a Philadelphia-based journalist. “It was something completely different.”

The Thursday night panel at the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists 2020 conference, hosted by music-streaming service Spotify, featured podcasters Deontay Morris, Rosie Guerin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, author Shea Serrano, sports reporter Tyler Tynes and former “Bachelor” contestant Rachel Lindsay.

Several conference attendees who joined the session said they had wanted to learn more about amplifying diverse voices in podcasting. 

That was before an uninvited visitor took over the session.

Midway through a conversation among panelists, someone in the virtual room shared their screen and bombarded participants with explicit pornography.

Struck silent by shock and confusion, Colón and others in the Zoom room tried to identify the person responsible.

Serrano said he was surprised, but only for a moment.

Then it happened again.

A second Zoom-bomb exploded with loud audio peppered with obscenities.

It was “the same thing,” Serrano said. “That’s the only trick Zoom trolls know. They’re wildly uninventive.”

“Zoom bombing” has becoming increasingly common in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic has continued to rage and force American workers to conduct business, social calls and even industry-wide conferences from home. Before the pandemic hit, Zoom had about 10 million daily users. By April, it had jumped to 300 million meeting participants per day, according to the company.

A Zoom-bomb occurs when a person arrives unannounced and uninvited in a virtual Zoom room, where they eventually announce their presence by hijacking the session and unloading offensive images, messages or audio. Videos of participants’ horrified responses often get posted to YouTube or TikTok, where they accumulate views and attention.

But Serrano said in this day and age, Zoom bombings are just another part of everyday life.

“I just planned to answer whatever questions ended up being asked, Serrano said. “I was on a panel with people much smarter than me so I knew that really all I had to do was stay out of the way and give them room to be smart and we’d all come out looking great.”

Participants in a virtual session hosted by Spotify for a NABJ-NAHJ 2020 Conference session on podcasting.

The Spotify session on Thursday was bombed not just once, but twice. A second troll interrupted the panel shortly after with loud inappropriate audio. 

Eventually, panelists said, both trolls were removed and the panel continued.

Isabella Phillippi Cámara, an NAHJ student member who was in the virtual room where it happened, logged out immediately after the smut flashed across her screen. An anxious person, Cámara said, she felt embarrassed and violated by the intrusion.

Cámara added that she was surprised that a Zoom-bomber was able to hijack a session at a professional conference backed by Spotify, a technology company. 

“If Spotify had just chosen to disable the seminar then everything would have run so smoothly,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been a problem.”

Spotify, the music-streaming service that sponsored the Thursday session, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Diane López Olea is a graduate of San Diego State University. As a student, she was the president of her university’s NAHJ chapter, wrote for The Daily Aztec in Spanish and English and worked as an assistant producer intern at Univision San Diego. Reach her at dlopezolea [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @dianelopezolea.

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