“We’re safe nowhere from gender based violence”: Cyberflashing attacks wreak havoc on Zoom

Jamie Mc Carron

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An online lecture about violence against women during the War of Independence was abandoned last week when a group of men began shouting racist and sexist abuse, with some even exposing themselves.

The incident which happened at an event organised by a County Clare historical society is the most recent in a spate of attacks happening on the video-conferencing platform Zoom.

In January the country was united in shock following the senseless murder of Ashling Murphy, with thousands gathering for the schoolteacher’s funeral in Mountbolus, Co Offaly and more still paying their respects at vigils across the country.

The entirety of the population was not grieving together though; a small subsection of men decided to make a mockery of the situation, in perhaps the cruellest way possible.

“There were so many vigils across the country but for people who are immuno-compromised or disabled, that wouldn’t be a great setting for them. So Zoom was the way to go for us,” said Christine O’Mahony, a political activist and journalist who was present when the incident took place on the 16th of January.

A link to join the Zoom call was shared widely across social media and eighty people came together on the video-conferencing site to pay their respects to one of the two hundred and fourty four women murdered in Ireland since 1996.

Organizers had planned an hour of poetry, music and various speeches, with contributions from singer Emma Langford and Traveller activist Rosemarie Maughan.

“To me it was about women from diverse backgrounds all coming together in love and solidarity to remember Ashling Murphy. We wanted to take a stand against what’s happening because it’s gotten to a level where women are safe nowhere from gender based violence,” Maughan explained a fortnight after the flashing.

During the speeches, O’Mahony noticed another account in the call using ‘Christine O’Mahony’ as its screen name.

She assumed it was some sort of error, or that she had joined the call twice, until the imposter account turned on its camera and chaos ensued.

“Rosemarie was speaking about men teaching their friends and sons to respect women when the camera of that account switched on and we saw this man masturbating,” O’Mahony recalled in disgust.

People began shouting at the man while the host frantically tried to remove him from the call.

“It was absolutely pandemonium. There were people in the Zoom call with their kids who were trying to pay respect to a young woman who had her life tragically cut short, there were sexual assault survivors too and they had to see this,” she added angrily.

O’Mahony described her jaw dropping and people leaving the call or crying at the distressing and graphic nature of what they were seeing.

“Someone even messaged me afterwards saying that they had tried to join but thank god their computer wasn’t working because they were with their daughter.”

“He used a woman of colour and a Traveller woman as a way to attack all women.”

The idea of her name being associated with such a horrific act left her incredibly upset. O’Mahony frequently finds herself as the subject of abuse and harassment on Twitter and her initial worry was that one of her trolls had decided to step up the intensity of their attacks on her.

“I blamed myself, when it was eventually my turn to speak I apologised profusely and I felt like I had brought this into the Zoom. I thought that whoever did it was trying to ruin my reputation and make them think I was somehow involved,” she said.

Maughan had her own hypothesis of why the flasher chose his moment so precisely: “Christine was the only woman of colour on that panel and I noticed that he seemed to be out to get her and myself the most. He wanted to embarrass her by using her name, and to disrespect me, a Traveller woman, by flashing us while I was talking.

He used a woman of colour and a Traveller woman as a way to attack all women.  It highlights what we’ve been saying all along and goes to show how often that men mock or disregard our entirely legitimate fears about our safety. This is the kind of thing that happens to us when we try to pay respect to a tragic murder victim,” she denounced.

The vigil’s organizers had made the meeting open to anyone to join, with the goal being that anyone of any background would have a place to share their grief over Ashling Murphy’s death.

O’Mahony felt that the possibility that someone would disrupt such a solemn and profound event seemed so unlikely that it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

Maughan added that everyone present had felt hurt by Ashling Murphy’s needless death and that the man responsible for disrupting the Zoom had “decided to disrespect the moment we had created by doing the most obscene he could have done.”

Surprisingly, this was not an isolated incident; just over a week after the vigil a similar act of contempt took place in a Zoom call organized by People Before Profit to discuss gender based violence.

Councillor Adrienne Wallace was present in the meeting with around one hundred and fifty other people, including representatives from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the National Woman’s Council.

Before the incident happened, she described the atmosphere as focused on “creating a world that’s safe and fair to women, because we certainly don’t live in one now.”

“This is why we do what we do and why we’ll keep making our voices heard”

During the meeting one person in the call began shouting and playing loud music, before a second person began to fill the chat window with sexually explicit messages.

Frantic efforts were made to remove these two culprits, according to Cllr. Wallace, and “when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse then another man turned on his camera and started masturbating.”

“It was definitely an organised assault which is just so twisted that there’s a group of people out there dedicated to trying to intimidate women, but it didn’t work.  This is why we do what we do and why we’ll keep making our voices heard. We’re a collective and we’re not going to be shut down by 3 or 4 people with a microphone and a webcam. That’s the extent of their power.”

In both incidents, victims of the cyberflashing are hoping that Gardaí will be able to locate the perpetrators and it’s unclear whether both attacks were connected.

While there is no stand-alone offence for cyberflashing,  Minister for Justice Helen Mc Entee has stated that the 2017 Sexual Offences Act which criminalises flashing is also applicable to online instances of the same crime.

A person who is guilty of this would face a fine of up to €5,000 or imprisonment for six months, or an imprisonment of two years if convicted on indictment.

Efforts are currently being made to pass data from Zoom to Gardaí in order to find the IP address of these perpetrators, a unique number which identifies a person’s internet connection.

This may lead to the identification and eventual prosecution of the flashers, but Cllr. Wallace feels it’s important to stress that these incidents don’t take place in a vaccum.

“Nearly every woman I know has had that level of, and even worse harassment, sent their way online but for it to happen at a meeting like this was so wrong. It’s another example of toxic masculinity,” she said.

 “But these things normally happen on a very individual level, which is what makes it so frightening and isolating. So the fact it happened in a public place and there was like a solidarity amongst us of ‘to hell with these gobshites, we’re gonna smash the system and build a better one’ can be quite empowering and I hope it led people to reach out to support services about other issues,” she added optimistically.

Jamie Mc Carron

Image Credit: Getty Images