By Jackie Reese

Introduction

A pandemic in the digital age is really a new experience for all of us. In many ways, it has presented challenges unlike any that we have ever seen. These challenges cannot be overstated, and I would never try to minimize them. However, in some other ways, it has offered an opportunity to get creative in a way that I believe will continue to benefit our society long after this global threat has ended and we can return to an existence more closely resembling “normal”.

At the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, it has been a creative challenge that I’ve found quite fascinating to come up with ways to continue to make resources available to the public. This started with creating a digital resources page on our website; it expanded to making our current exhibit available in a digital format; and now, it looks like presenting online programs, such as the ones we are doing in concert with #TogetherWeRemember.

There is some level of democratization that is really staggering about this whole experience; after all, who ever thought that we could hold our program with the same level of technical sophistication as the Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon? (that may be a slight exaggeration, but nevertheless all of us owe Zoom a debt of gratitude)

About Zoombombing

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones getting more creative; antagonists are as well. “Zoombombing”–the phenomenon of disruptors breaking up meetings using graphic or threatening images, messages, and audio– has become a new reality that organizations big and small have had to become wary of. Zoombombing can take many forms, which at best can be described as “mischief”, but at its most insidious can perpetuate the very racism, prejudice, and violence that our organization is working toward eliminating.

I had been warned about zoombombing, but it felt rather abstract until one of the organizations working with us through Together We Remember had it happen to them. My colleagues and I were deeply shaken when we found out, and we decided to prioritize and think of it much the same as we would think of physical security—because, while physical harm isn’t inflicted, the trauma is and was very real for the people who experienced it. And as anyone who has seen Pittsburgh in the news in the last year and a half probably knows, as the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history, security is something that our community takes very seriously.

The FBI has issued warnings about zoombombing, but many of their recommendations are hard to apply to public programs. And we cannot, under any circumstances, allow the haters to win. As a colleague of mine has said, the goal of these antagonists is “silence or violence”. We will not be silent, and we must protect our constituents from the violence.

Practical Tips From Our Organization

We recently held a large public zoom event that went very well, and so here are the practical tips that we used in making it happen:

First and foremost, this ADL article is great for giving very practical tips, and it was the jumping off point for our organization as we formulated our gameplan. I would highly suggest implementing as many of these tips as possible.

As people registered, we had them do so through Zoom, and we set it to where approval was required. I would just go in to Zoom daily and screen the emails that were signing up to make sure that nothing seemed suspicious, like “ throwaway324u320984@fake.com” or something. I think even having the signing up/approval step as a hurdle for potential bad actors reduced our risk.

Having this setting in play continued into the event itself. You can choose whether to have someone monitoring the registrations and approving them as they come in through the event, and/or do what we have done–letting our constituents know that, for the security of our event, registration is required in advance and we cannot guarantee that “walk-ins” will be allowed. This is fairly standard for our organization for our physical events, so it’s not new messaging for us. Plus, thanks to the Zoom livestreaming feature, our would-be walk-ins can watch the event from Facebook Live.

One thing that we did that might be a little unconventional is converting all of our events that were set up as meetings to webinars. This requires buying an add-on in Zoom, but by default it formats it more as an “auditorium” style event than a “meeting” style event, and it gives the host a greater level of control over everyone in the room. “Attendees” are automatically muted and do not have video. So if people don’t need to be talking throughout the event, that works out great. We’ve even run it where everyone starts out as “audience” and then folks are promoted up to “panelists” once we recognize who they are and/or we are able to screen what organization they’re coming from, and then run it largely as we would have done in a meeting.

If you can’t or don’t want to hold a webinar, the “waiting room” function in meetings seems to run similarly in terms of pre-screening attendees.

Another thing that I’ve done is disabling chat. With the webinar function, there is a Q+A section that people can use, and you can set it up where audience can only see “answered” questions—so if someone sent something inappropriate, it can be dismissed by the meeting host so that the audience is not exposed to anything untoward.

The biggest advice that I can give is having at least one person whose sole job is just running the tech admin side of things off camera—keeping an eye on if someone needs to be muted or ejected, keeping an eye on any chat or Q+A, etc. It’s way too much for someone to be trying to conduct the meeting with attendees and also running the tech moderation side of things. 

We also made sure to have a game plan for order of operations in the event of something going wrong—so for example, in the event of a zoombomb, my first action was going to be to pause the Facebook livestream, then try to mute and eject the source, and, in the event of a true hack where functionality was compromised, end the meeting (with the person running the meeting on the front end being prepared with a quick, calm script for attendees to let them know that the meeting was compromised and that we were ending the meeting so that we could guide people out as calmly as possible). I was also recording, so if something did happen, we would have caught in the recording who did it and could report them at once to our Jewish Federation’s head of security.

From what I understand of our partner organization who was zoombombed, the event was held in meeting format and was open to all, and so the hacker was able to recruit others on Discord to bombard the room, making it impossible to eject them all. Worst of all, the person running the event was also the sole person administrating the tech side, so it was impossible for her to do everything at once. We tried to learn as much as possible from her experience to ensure that none of our colleagues would have to experience something like this again.

This time is unprecedented, and we are all still learning. Hopefully by working together and sharing our experiences as we go, we can build on each other’s experiences to become stronger together. I hope that this advice can help you and your organization, and I look forward to learning more from you in turn!

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