On November 6, 2020, unidentified individuals used anti-Semitic and misogynistic images and messaging to hijack a virtual conference hosted by the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. Their actions forced the conference organizers to suspend and reschedule the event.
The conference, titled “Nos luttes changent la via entière, 50 ans de MLF,” was organized by faculty in the social sciences and invited experts to discuss feminist movements in France over the past fifty years.
During one of the first sessions, participants and organizers reported seeing a spike in attendees, some of which used anti-Semitic and other offensive pseudonyms to identify themselves. Shortly thereafter, those same users began showing anti-Semitic, sexist, and other violent imagery on the screen. The sudden hijacking of the platform forced conference organizers to end the discussion and reschedule the rest of the event. Organizers later reported that news of the conference had been shared weeks earlier to an online forum known to host far-right, misogynistic discussions.
The hijacking of the November 6 conference proceedings fit a pattern of incidents that began in early March 2020, when higher education institutions in many parts of the world began suspending in-person classes and campus activities, moving them all online, as part of an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. Faculty, students, and members of the higher education community began using online video conferencing platforms, including Zoom, to hold virtual classes and meetings. A growing number of Zoom meetings and classes have been hijacked by uninvited individuals who post racist, pornographic, or other disturbing messages to the screen or chat. On March 30, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a warning about the increase in reports of these hijackings, known as Zoom-bombings, calling on victims of “teleconference hijacking, or any cyber-crime” to report them to the FBI.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the hijacking of a university event, intended to harass members of the university community and prevent or retaliate against the non-violent exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression. Members of the public have a responsibility to respect institutional autonomy and refrain from interfering in the functioning of higher education. State authorities and other stakeholders, including companies running internet communication platforms, have an obligation to take available measures to protect the functioning of the higher education space, and to respond appropriately to threats, particularly during a period of heightened vulnerability of the higher education space. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such acts undermine institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and democratic society generally.