To the Editor:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented numbers of academicians are working remotely and using videoconferencing for teaching, research, and collaboration. Embracing novel technology rapidly at this scale leads to security risks. With the rise of videoconferencing, virtual intruders have been interrupting meetings to display offensive audiovisual content. In April 2020, the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center suffered a traumatic videoconference intrusion (“Zoombombing”) with racist imagery and video of sexual violence against minors.
The offensive content affected over 70 students, staff, faculty, and industry collaborators. We coordinated a rapid response with experts in trauma-informed psychology to address the impact of this event. Given the likelihood of similar episodes occurring elsewhere, we share our staged response and prevention strategy to help others prevent such intrusions and to help those who have already been affected. The steps we outline below have prevented recurrent attacks.
Immediate response. When the intrusion occurred, we ended the affected meeting as quickly as possible. Subsequently, department leaders notified law enforcement and the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. To reduce the risk of recurrence, we improved security practices and publicized these changes to educate other groups and to reassure affected attendees regarding future meetings. Specific steps included:
- Making passwords and waiting rooms mandatory
- Muting attendees on entrance
- Maintaining host-only audio controls
- Encouraging typed chat questions/comments during lectures/seminars
- Permitting unmuting for question-and-answer sessions (optional)
First 24–48 hours: Acknowledge and normalize. After the intrusion, we publicly acknowledged via email the trauma inherent in this type of videoconference intrusion. We normalized feelings of disgust, anger, and grief as appropriate responses. Our stance included granting each other the “gift of grace,” allowing space and time to acknowledge responses nonjudgmentally. Importantly, leaders’ willingness to acknowledge their own reactions and coping promoted psychological safety, which contributed to a healing environment.
On an individual level, we leveraged our community of faculty, staff, and trainees in our department to organize weekly peer-to-peer check-ins (10 minutes) scheduled around other existing meetings. In these check-ins, we shared available institutional resources for grounding and relaxation (e.g., mindfulness, movement classes). We reminded our teams that some people will feel they can cope on their own—also an acceptable response.
Next day and subsequent week: Resilience-focused support. The following day, we reminded our community of short- and long-term supportive online and face-to-face resources available for coping and emphasized expectations of wellness and health (e.g., “As terrible as the intrusion was, we have resources to help you cope with what occurred”).
One week later, we held a secure, optional, drop-in support session led by psychologists and experts in trauma-informed mental health (including J.S.E.) that was well received and well attended. We also emphasized free, confidential Employee Assistance Programs and options for longer-term personalized counseling.
Long-term: Coping not closure. Via departmental email and in our drop-in support session, we acknowledged that the videoconferencing intrusion might not result in identification or arrest of the perpetrators. Similarly, the crimes depicted might have been solved years ago. In either case, our resilient community will overcome this intrusion together.
Once seen, intrusive images cannot be unseen. But we might aid others who have been similarly affected and focus our energy on supporting our communities.
The authors thank Dr. Tarah Kuhn for her guidance, education, and support, including her participation in the drop-in support session described above.