Risk of online sex trolling rises as coronavirus prompts home working

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More people could fall prey to online sex abuse and trolling as working from home becomes the norm during the coronavirus outbreak, and more video conferencing takes place, women’s rights experts warned on Wednesday.

The world is in “new and uncharted territory” with so many people suddenly working remotely, which gives abusers new ways to target both strangers and acquaintances online, said Heather Barr, co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.

A group of people in the United States took to social media on Tuesday to express shock at receiving a pornographic video while dialing in to a virtual social event held on Zoom, a California-based video conferencing platform.

They said it happened during a meet-up hosted by a virtual chat room group called WFH Happy Hour - meaning ‘Working from Home Happy Hour’ - that enables homeworkers to socialize online.

“Ok the #WFHappyHour… got trolled. We’re getting a new link up very soon,” Sarah Frier, a journalist, wrote on Twitter.

“I cannot unsee what just happened,” wrote Josh Constine, another attendee.

One participant said he wanted to apologize to his parents, who had joined the group for the first time.

Constine told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday that the pornography, delivered via screenshare, was hardcore, shocking and offensive.

“Participants screamed and cringed while the hosts rushed to kick the troll out of the call. But they just re-entered under a new name and blasted the audience with more disgusting imagery,” he added.


The group will be disabling screen sharing in future, to prevent abusers taking over the screen and showing “awful” content again, said Casey Newton, from San Francisco, who organized the meet-up.

“Sending unsolicited pornographic or otherwise offensive images or video is an attack on our right to privacy and freedom from harassment,” said Tsitsi Matekaire, Global Lead of the End Sex Trafficking program at Equality Now.

“We shouldn’t have to amend our privacy settings,” she added.

A nationwide survey in the United States in 2017 by the non-profit Cyber Civil Rights Initiative found that nearly 13% of about 3,000 participants had been threatened by or victims of revenge porn, the distribution of sexually graphic images of them without their consent.

In Britain, more than 40% of millennial women have been sent an unsolicited photo of a man’s private parts usually using iPhone AirDrop, according to a YouGov poll in 2017.

Zoom was not immediately available for comment when contacted by phone and email, nor were other popular teleconferencing platforms including Cisco Webex and Skype for Business.

Microsoft declined to comment.

Reporting by Sophie Davies, Editing by Tom Finn, Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly