Correction: an earlier version of the article claimed a 4chan post had been created in the Pacific Time Zone. The Azores Time Zone is more likely.
On Thursday, Feb. 11, the “Keeping it Professional” virtual panel, hosted by the McClain Center for Diversity and Concerned Black Students, was infiltrated by a group of anonymous participants who yelled and typed racist and anti-Semitic attacks and insults at the panel and its audience.
The panel, held over Zoom, was intended to discuss student representation on campus and the experiences of Black professionals in the work environment. Seven Black Wittenberg faculty and staff participated in the panel, including Corrine Witherspoon, the director of the McClain Center for Diversity.
Student Senate President Emmanuel Thombs (’22) described the onset of the attack.
“[An] unidentified group of individuals joined the call with names such as ‘I love fried chicken,’ and ‘I hate black people,'” Thombs said. “After everyone gave introductions, they turned on their microphones and started typing and yelling racial and anti-Semitic slurs.”
Thombs, who was not on the call at the time, was informed of the incident by Dean of Students Casey Gill.
“When Dean Gill called me to tell me what happened, my heart sank,” Thombs, an African American student, said. “I immediately felt unsafe in a way that I hadn’t particularly felt at Wittenberg before. For me, Wittenberg has been a safe space. If I’m being honest, I don’t feel as safe anymore.”
Not long after the attacks began, the Zoom call was ended, and the event closed.
Three hours later, President Mike Frandsen circulated a campus-wide email detailing the ambush.
“I am sending this message not only to acknowledge that this incident occurred, but to implore all of us to understand the true challenge before us as a community as we collectively work to eliminate discriminatory, hateful words and actions,” Frandsen said in the email.
On Feb. 12, the members of Student Senate circulated an email to students denouncing the attack.
“This is not a joke,” the email said. “This is not a prank. This was a deliberate, cowardly act of violence.”
Thombs reiterated the university’s unequivocal opposition to the intruders’ actions.
“Student Senate firmly denounces the cowardly actions that occurred [that] night,” Thombs said on behalf of Student Senate in a statement to the Torch. “We support and hope that the police department will pursue penalty to the fullest extent legally possible. This doesn’t belong on our campus or anywhere.”
Concurrent investigations by Wittenberg Police and the Wittenberg Torch found that references to the event’s Zoom link had been posed on 4chan, an anonymous discussion board site with a history of harboring white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The post that contained the link itself was posted in the group “Politically Incorrect/Black History Month,” part of a discussion titled “Zoom Black History Month Trolling 3.”
The original post included Zoom links and a website link to a Black History Month event hosted by the Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York. It instructed users to “join with [a] minority name” and “start lowkey trolling and racebaiting” but cautioned them not to be “too obvious.” The post also contained links to video recordings of Zoom sessions being similarly attacked, which the anonymous author referred to as “last time.”
All of the targeted Black History Month events listed in the discussion were ostensibly chosen because they had publicly accessible Zoom links. A comment on the original post instructed users to “type on Google ‘black history month [sic] zoom [sic] university america [sic]” to find freely accessible Zoom links.
The post containing the Wittenberg Zoom link, written as a comment on those instructions, also included a link to an event at the Baruch College at the City University of New York, which started at 6:00 PM. Both the Wittenberg and New York Zoom meetings had publically visible Zoom Meeting ID’s or personal links, the two standard methods of accessing a Zoom meeting without a paid add-on, according to Zoom’s website.
According to 4chan data, the post containing the Wittenberg Zoom link was published at 10:49 PM on Feb. 11. The post, though, specified that the events started “in 10 minutes,” indicating that the originator was not within the same time zone as the universities it targeted.
Although the time difference for a 7:00PM start time in the Eastern Time Zone would suggest that the user posted from the West Greenland Time Zone, the Baruch College event started at 6:00PM Eastern Standard Time; this instead suggests that the user more likely posted from the Azores Standard Time Zone, a time frame which would allow sufficient room for the 6:00PM New York City event to start within the period specified by the anonymous author.
Similarly, the original “Zoom Black History Month Trolling 3,” posted at 7:57PM according to 4chan data, referenced an event that occurred at 3:00PM Eastern Standard Time “in five minutes.” This suggests that the post originated in the Greenwich Mean Time Zone, a European time zone encompassing the United Kingdom, Portugal and parts of Western Africa.
Regardless of the origin, location and timing of the post, President Frandsen committed to more stringent security measures for university Zoom calls in the future in a campus-wide email on Feb 12.
“Measures have already been taken to secure future Zoom meetings at Wittenberg,” Frandsen said in his second email. “Early next week, employees will receive additional notes relative to options available within Zoom to enhance security, as well as the general meeting experiences.”
Additionally, the Wittenberg Police filed a request for a preservation of records with the Zoom platform.
“We hope to receive data from the company that may allow us to trace IP addresses to determine a possible location for the perpetrators of these acts,” the Feb. 12 email said.
Although Thombs was shaken by the attack, he was optimistic about the university’s response.
“I think that if the university sets the right precedent when it comes to holding those involved accountable, it will help prevent instances like this from happening in the future,” Thombs said.