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Dissertation Defense on Zoom Interrupted by Racist Attack

March 30, 2020
 
 

A newly minted Ed.D. graduate, Dennis Johnson, is calling on Zoom to make changes after his virtual defense of his dissertation last week was interrupted by someone who scrawled the N-word, drew an image of genitalia and posted pornographic images. Such attacks by so-called Zoombombers, who spew racist or pornographic content on the online meeting platform, have interrupted classes as well. While there are technical fixes professors and students can make to limit the possibility of such attacks, the rapid transition of classes online due to the coronavirus crisis has meant many are using a platform for teaching that they're relatively unfamiliar with.

“After I was done with my presentation and my committee said congratulations, ‘Dr. Dennis Johnson,’ I said thank you but I couldn’t enjoy the moment,” Johnson wrote in a petition to Zoom. Johnson, a black, first-generation college student, earned a doctorate of education from California State University, Long Beach. His dissertation focused on experiences of African American students who graduated from career pathways programs at California high schools.

“Truth be told, no matter how much I brushed it off, my moment had been taken and there was nothing I could do about to get it back,” Johnson wrote. “On one of my most remarkable moments of my life, I was called a ‘nigger.’ My mother, grandmother, sister, spouse and many others were shown images of pornography.”

Johnson has called on Zoom to make several changes, including hiring a chief diversity officer and adding technology that auto-detects, flags and blocks users who post discriminatory words or images. ​"Relying on individuals to fully understand the software’s platform demonstrates Zoom’s unwillingness to simply create a systemic change to protect its users, instead of relying on the user to protect themselves against these cyber attacks," the petition states. Johnson also called for Zoom to issue a formal apology to him and others who have been victims of such attacks.

A Zoom spokesperson said the company encourages users to report incidents of this kind and that it was "deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack and we regret that Dr. Dennis Johnson had this experience."

"We take the security of Zoom meetings seriously and in order to prevent such incidents from occurring, we strongly encourage our education users to follow the guidance contained here," the spokesperson said. "In particular, we recently updated the default screen sharing settings for our education users -- sharing privileges are now set to 'Host Only,' so teachers by default are the only ones who can share content in class. We are committed to maintaining an equal, respectful and inclusive online environment for all our users regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, age, disability or genetics."

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