by Chetanya Robinson
The King County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a “coordinated attack” from hackers that disrupted an online town hall for Skyway hosted by the King County Local Services Department on October 6, according to a statement from the King County Executive’s Office. Hackers broke into the meeting and used Zoom’s annotations feature to post “offensive, anti-Black, anti-Semitic, and sexually explicit images and words,” according to King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay on Twitter, who was part of the meeting.
“This harassment was unacceptable and we condemn it completely,” the County Executive Office’s statement continued.
The meeting was an annual Community Service Area town hall intended to engage residents of Skyway and West Hill. The County Local Services Department provides a variety of services to unincorporated parts of the county, such as Skyway and White Center. The meetings, held annually, include local elected officials.
The attack occurred for at least 11 minutes before the hackers were removed from the meeting, according to Chase Gallagher, Deputy Communications Director for the King County Executive’s Office. Hackers drew swastikas and offensive language, including the N-word, on the shared Zoom screen.
“King County departments are immediately reviewing protocols, pursuing legal options, and implementing additional preventative measures for future events,” the County Executive’s Office said in their statement.
“I think folks were pretty shell shocked,” said Aaron Sherman, communications manager in Councilmember Zahilay’s office. “It was persistent, it was aggressive, and it was offensive.”
It’s not clear whether the hack was targeted at Zahilay or the Skyway community — which has the highest proportion of African Americans of any community in Washington state. But having worked in communications in government for a long time, Sherman said the attack reflected the online harassment that women and People of Color in office routinely receive. “It’s normalized and awful.”
Zoom meetings have frequently been hijacked, or “bombed,” during the COVID-19 pandemic, after the platform became a replacement for many in-person work meetings and events. These incidents often include racially motivated attacks, Al Jazeera reported earlier this year. Threads on 4Chan found by Al Jazeera show coordinated efforts to hijack events focused on minority communities, aimed at spreading messages of hate during these hijackings.
“This behavior is unacceptable and reflects a toxic racism that has been growing louder locally and nationally,” Zahilay wrote on Twitter. “For those who can, let’s not allow this disgusting and targeted behavior to deflate us, divide us, or make us cynical. That’s exactly what they want.”
Zahilay’s office takes the hack seriously, Sherman said, but does not want it to distract from the focus on fighting systemic racism on the policy level. “I think it’s way more racist when you walk down the streets of Skyway and you see underdeveloped communities that have been systemically disinvested from for generations,” said Sherman.
Chetanya Robinson is a Seattle-based journalist.
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks during his December 2019 swearing-in ceremony held at Franklin High School. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)