Online safety in a changing world – COVID-19 and cyber violence
By Lizle Loots , Elizabeth Dartnall  and Jocelyn Kelly 
1 Sexual Violence Research Initiative
2 Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
Living in unprecedented times
On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organization’s Director General declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, the world changed in ways we could not possibly have imagined. One month later, many of us across the globe are living in lockdown - borders are closed, businesses and schools are shut, social contact and movement are limited. With these measures in place, we are seeing markets collapse, mass job losses and governments at their most vulnerable as they try to contain the spread. We receive news of family, friends, politicians, athletes, entertainers and frontline health workers falling ill from a disease that spans class, race and economic status.
"You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work." (Source: Twitter, Author Unknown)
With these fundamental shifts in the way we live and work, come great uncertainty, fear and anxiety. Trying to keep productivity levels high while balancing our anxieties with home life and keeping healthy, is testing to many of us, making self-care even more vital than ever before. But what are the impacts of these shifts on women working at home and children participating in distance learning during this pandemic? How do we ensure that we are all safe when online communication key to performing our work and maintaining social connection to the outside world?
Covid-19 and increased violence in the home
With lockdown and social distancing measures enforced in many countries, we are reading about an increase of violence in the home, more specifically, intimate partner violence (IPV) and violence against children. During pandemics, as in conflict and other disasters, women and children are disproportionally affected, with pandemics creating an “enabling environment that may exacerbate or spark diverse forms of violence”.
But this is not the only form of violence many people are experiencing during this pandemic. The transition from in-person to online meetings has increasingly revealed the dark side of online communication tools. As always, these changes disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including recovery and emotional support groups, children attending distance learning classes, LGBTQ+ support groups and women’s groups.
As more people are isolated at home, online events and meetings are fast becoming the norm. From March to April, there was a 535% rise in daily traffic to the Zoom.us – a popular and free video-conferencing service. At the same time, cyber bullying and violence have accelerated to make these places feel less safe.
“Zoom-bombing” – when hackers infiltrate video conferences, often shouting racial slurs or threats or sharing explicit photos – has become increasingly common, aided by lax security and privacy measures available from free applications. The impact of this on various communities using applications such as Zoom has raised serious concerns by users and has led to FBI warnings.
Zoom-bombing and harm to communities
As a women-led, and women’s rights-based NGO working to strengthen the evidence base and build capacity on violence against women and violence against children globally, the SVRI experienced this abuse first-hand. A recent webinar on advancing research to prevent violence against women was ‘zoom-bombed’. The meeting was hacked with racially charged and sexually explicit material. This form of violence inflicted upon those attending, presenting and organising the event may have far reaching consequences, for the wellbeing of those who experienced it, and for the SVRI to provide future events that are open, inclusive and accessible for all.
We recognise that this type of violence against groups online is an upward trend with potential harm that can be caused, but also that building a strong virtual network is key in times of crises. Although more is needed on digital well-being, the SVRI has taken some precautionary steps to avoid future disruptions and will collect more resources on online safety and wellbeing to share with our wider membership.
Safety tips during online events
The SVRI community response to this online attack was swift. Multiple colleagues and donors shared tips and resources on how to secure future events. To follow is a compilation of the advice and guidance shared:
Steps to take before your meeting starts:
- Get the latest update: Ensure that your Zoom app and your mobile device has been updated with the most recent security settings.
- Assign co-host/s: Ensure that there is more than one co-host to monitor the space and manage participants entering the room.
- Assign a per-meeting ID: Never use your Personal Meeting ID when hosting public events. If your PMI is shared, anyone can join your personal virtual space at any time. Please see the video tutorial on meeting IDs here.
- Ensure screen sharing is disabled for non-hosts: Change your Zoom meeting's settings so that random participants are blocked from sharing their screens. Select Share Screen > Advanced Settings > Who can share? > Only host at the bottom of your Zoom meeting. You can also set up this preference before your Zoom call via Settings > Screen Sharing.
- Turn off annotation: You and your participants can doodle and mark up content together using annotations when screens are shared. Disable the annotation feature in your Zoom settings to prevent people from writing all over the screens.
- Require password to join: In addition to making Zoom rooms private, hosts can also require participants to enter a password to join. Password settings can be found here: Settings > Meetings > Schedule meetings > Require password when scheduling new meetings.
- Enable the Waiting Room feature: One of the best ways to use Zoom for public events is to enable the Waiting Room feature. Just like it sounds, the Waiting Room is a virtual staging area that stops your guests from joining until you’re ready for them.
- Disable file transfers: Consider disabling in-meeting file transfers or limiting what types of files can be transferred. Disable this feature by selecting User Management > Group Management > File Transfer to disable, or Account Management > IM Management > File Transfer to indicate what types of files are acceptable.
- Pre-registration: Setting up pre-registration (eg. via Eventbrite) can help to mitigate entry of potential hackers into the meeting space.
Safety during your meeting:
- Muting participants: Consider using the Mute All Controls at the bottom of the participants list to prevent disruptive and abusive behaviour by potential hackers.
- Removing participants: If a participant needs to be removed for disruptive or abusive behaviour, next to the person you want to remove, click More > From the list that appears, click Remove.
- Disable Rejoin: Make sure participants can't enter the meeting space again if they've been removed from a Zoom call. To disable this Rejoin, the host should go to User Management > Group Management > Settings > Meeting > In-Meeting (Basic), and switch off Allow Removed Participants To Rejoin.
The University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Centre gave the following guidance to those responding to harm caused by events such as zoom-bombing:
- There are two ways to follow up after events such as webinars have been attacked. The links provided below:
- Download the Chat to address specific comments, to directly name the harm caused to specific communities.
- Acknowledge that what happened was wrong, scary, and unacceptable; tie this to campus or organisational climate and stated institutional values.
- If there were concrete actions you were able to take, share them.
- If your institution has a bias incident reporting protocol, report it!
- A message to our users, Zoom
- Managing users, Zoom (video tutorial)
- How to Prevent "Zoombombing", ADL
- How To Keep Your Zoom Calls Protected Against “Zoombombing”, Refinery29
- SVRI vicarious trauma resources
- Managing your online wellbeing,Webwise
- Google Digital Wellbeing (statistics), Google
Online engagement is the new normal. And whilst we are aware that increased security will limit access to our online events, we take these steps first and foremost to ensure the safety of our online event participants.
If you have any thoughts or resources on women's digital wellbeing or human rights workers’ digital wellbeing, kindly let us know!
(Image source: Socrates Water)
Thank you to everyone who reached out to us with ideas, recommendations on how to secure online events.