Muslim Student Association meeting virtually attacked

Bailey Tomlinson, News Editor

The Muslim Student Association’s beginning of the quarter Zoom meeting was hacked and harassed, with a viewer sharing their screen across the entire meeting, drawing profane things and making racist remarks. Several others then followed suit, according to Salam Awad, club advisor for the Muslim Student Association.

She tried to end the meeting from her end, but doing so only transferred host privileges to those committing the attack. The MSA had to go live on their social media accounts to warn students to not attend their own event, as the Zoom code provided now directed viewers to the graphic display being put on.

Student groups, clubs and classes alike are turning to the web conferencing tool Zoom to facilitate gatherings that comply with social distancing guidelines. With such a large scale integration of Zoom, students are finding themselves facing new challenges associated with entirely online communication. One of these challenges is digital safety.

“Many have found Zoom’s default privacy and security features lacking which allowed some meetings to be invaded by unwanted malicious actors, known as Zoom Bombing,” an April 8 email from the CWU Service Desk said. 

The MSA is one of many student groups across the nation who have reported experiencing Zoom bombing.

“Our goal [for the meeting] was just to sort of create a community support chat center for students, for MSA students and for Central Washington University students in general,” Awad said. “It was just going to be just to facilitate a conversation and get some discussion rolling about what our hopes for virtual spring 2020 could look like.”

The MSA created a digital event poster that included the Zoom link to the meeting and posted it to all of their social media platforms. According to Awad, student turnout was good, but around 20 random people joined the meeting who would go on to Zoom bomb it as well.

“I really think the word ‘terrorize’ is not being overdramatic in this context,” Awad said. “It was just very, very awful.”

The material the hackers were sharing felt targeted, MSA President Semir Ibrahimovic said.

“It just seemed almost like they had a checklist of groups they just wanted to attack, like people of color, they went through that, homophobic remarks, they went through that,” Ibrahimovic said. “Islamophobia. They hit every group so quickly, and it could just be people trying to say as much as they wanted in a short amount of time, but there was something almost like a methodology to it.” 

Ibrahimovic said because the MSA is a marginalized group and holds meetings to support marginalized identities, this was more destructive than Zoom bombing a function like a staff meeting.

“They repetitively kept saying they hate us … and that’s something that was just like, I mean instantly, it was ‘we hate you,’” Awad said. “The word hate was just used over and over again.”

Awad said although the attack took place online, the language and material used made it feel incredibly direct.

“Now we are in this virtual zone and we are having to learn how to navigate this virtual center and also protect our security,” Awad said. “So unfortunately as a club, as MSA, as a marginalized group it sucks to have to be the first ones to experience this, but I think we’re all collectively hoping that we can take steps to assure that no other clubs have to go through the same experience.”

The MSA says it has received a lot of different avenues of support following the meeting. Equity and Services Council (ESC) representatives have been working with the group to navigate different tools and increase their online security. They’ve also received emails from the Diversity and Equity Center (DEC) expressing support.  

The Service Desk email included a brief list of ways to increase security, encouraging students using Zoom to require a strong password to join the meeting, not let participants join the meeting before the intended host, require host approval for each participant joining and to be cautious with who the code is given to. 

Mohsen Asadalla, MSA treasurer, said learning about security features and how to secure meetings would be helpful, but he was concerned that because the club meetings are meant to be public they wouldn’t be able to reasonably adopt certain security changes. 

Included in the email was a link to a more comprehensive page for students who need to secure Zoom meetings.

Awad said this experience will “absolutely not” deter the club from holding more meetings in the future.

“It kind of was a reality check that, okay, we need to make sure that we secure ourselves virtually,” Awad said. “We need to make sure that we are creating these safe spaces.” 

Awad said though MSA members were impacted by the attack directly, they were also hurt that their platform was used to impact others in this way. 

“I think if anything it’s just making us more determined to fulfill our club mission and make sure that people feel that this is always going to be a safe space for them to come and join,” Awad said.

MSA Secretary Jasmine Johnson-Conley said the goal of Zoom bombers is to spread hate and fear, and she encouraged other clubs to remain strong.

“I think the DEC was considered a safe space on campus. Being able to replicate that virtually is super important, and I think with ESC meetings they’ve been able to do that,” Ibrahimovic said. “I think as long as there can be a reassurance of that same safe space virtually, I don’t think it will deter other clubs either.”

Ibrahimovic reiterated that their club mandate of unity and a safe space for Muslim students and allies is just as valid during the virtual quarter as it has been previously, and they will still be making an effort to host as many of their events virtually as they can.

Reports of Zoom bombings have been coming out nationally, with Zoom implementing new security measures into the platform in an effort to reduce the number of meetings affected.