Sam has eight hours of online school every weekday. “We have to stare at the screen even during fun classes like art and PE,” the 15-year-old told VICE over chat platform Discord. Sam’s name, like all other students quoted in this story, has been changed because they were worried their schools and parents wouldn’t be too thrilled about their participation in this piece.
Last year, a friend told Sam about Royal Dinesh, a YouTuber who shot to popularity in the pandemic for “raiding’” online classes and livestreaming them on Discord.
“He wasn’t toxic or abusive in the videos that I had watched,” Sam said. “So, in November last year, I sent him the link, ID and password to my art class through a DM. Our classes have been online for more than a year, and I just wanted to create some memories for our class. In the class, we were in the middle of drawing something complicated when Dinesh drew a funny cartoon figure and showed it to the teacher. The teacher laughed, asked him who he was, and to show his face. When he did, he got kicked out.”
Sam said the teacher did question the class about it but since no one owned up, the matter was dropped. Apart from his close friends, the rest of the class remained unaware of his role in the raid. “We all laughed and spoke about it for days.”
Chennai-based Aarush, too, asked the YouTuber to enter his English class. “He was dressed as a baba (a saint) and danced. It was funny and everyone laughed,” chuckled the 13-year-old.
Meet the Raiders
Offline, Royal Dinesh is Dinesh Lakhani, a 25-year-old gamer and full-time YouTuber based in Indore in central India. Over a phone interview, he explained that he got the idea to raid classes while chatting with one of his subscribers on Discord last September. “He had to leave the chat abruptly to attend online classes, so I wondered, why not sit in these classes randomly?” he told VICE. “He shared the link and other details to his class. I entered and just sat through it quietly.”
Today, Lakhani estimates he’s raided more than 100 classes, mostly on Zoom.
“If the teacher is friendly, I crack a joke, but if the teacher is strict, I just leave without saying anything.” His subscriber count shot up from 4,000 to 30,000 within a week of starting these raids. “I get so many messages from students saying that they have been going through a lot of pressure and mental stress during the pandemic, and that these zoombombing videos helped them relax a bit,” he said.
Lakhani doesn’t prepare for the raids in advance. This, inevitably, leads to issues. During a raid in October last year, he asked his Discord community for the answer to a math problem a teacher had posed in class. A few people replied saying the answer was “69.” “It did sound odd to me,” he said, but he repeated it anyway. The joke was on him, for a change, as a few students could be seen stifling their giggles on hearing his extremely-off-the-mark answer.
Lakhani has compiled his best raids and put them up on YouTube. In one such video with 910,000 views, he raps the poem This Little Light of Mine. Another shows him in a math class, playing a game on a VR headset and getting the students to solve a math problem as the teacher watches on, half amused. In another, he belts out the viral song Pawri Ho Rahi Hai, and in yet another, he pretends to be a Zoom official requesting the class to exit and log in again.
Just yesterday, though, Lakhani’s YouTube channel got hacked and all his videos, including the raids, were deleted. When we spoke last, he was working on getting the channel restored.
When the world went online last year with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing everyone to stay indoors, “Zoombombing” or “Zoom raiding” emerged as a worrying side-effect.
Here, strangers or internet trolls typically enter an online class or meeting without the host’s permission and disrupt it with anything, from silly pranks and gags to obscene content and toxic comments. In India, where most schools still remain shut, bored or stressed students looking for comic relief often share their class links, IDs and passwords either through a direct message or a public comment on accounts dedicated to raiding these classes.
Sun Bae aka Sharik Malik is another YouTuber popular for his raids.
Malik told VICE he gets around 300 to 500 requests for raids every day. “Most of them are from Grade 7 and 8 students, asking me to abuse their teachers,” he said over a phone interview. “It’s shocking, but I ignore them. I livestream my raids on YouTube so people know exactly what I said.”
In one video, Malik – a face mask and cap firmly in place – plays Punjabi music in class and pretends to be a student. That video has a whooping 2.6 million views.
But today, the 28-year-old has mixed feelings about raids in general, explaining that students often share their class details in his videos’ comments section but later complain about how strangers wreaked havoc in class.
“These strangers often take screenshots of the female students, photoshop them to make memes and share them in the next raid. They even enter classes under names like Mia Khalifa and spam the chat box,” he said. He added there are numerous vicious groups on Telegram as well, and that he always insists on direct messages to maintain some degree of safety and privacy.
Raids to Protest
Malik is a businessman based in Jammu in the northern part of India, where students had the additional challenge of attending online classes despite a ban on high speed internet data. Internet services were first severed in Jammu & Kashmir on August 5, 2019 as the central government revoked the state’s semi-autonomous status. The government restored its 4G services after 18 long months.
Malik started the raids as a form of protest against teachers and schools who, he believed, were not conducting online classes well. “There were too many strict rules in place – if students were a few minutes late in joining the class, they were barred from attending it,” he said. “Also, how can you expect a family of two or three children to share a smartphone for classes? That, too, with slow mobile data speed? Students showed me school receipts of fees paid for transport, computers and library during the lockdown – despite not having had a chance to use any of them. They also messaged me saying their teachers were not interested and were doing other things like cooking in the middle of taking classes. But in a few raids, I’ve complimented good teachers, too.”
Pranks gone problematic
But these raids don’t come without their risks and the potential for it to go wrong, even if the intention was just to play a harmless prank. “A friend once asked me to raid her class,” said Malik. “So I pretended to be her father in class and complained to the teacher that the girl doesn’t call or keep in touch with me. Later, the teacher complained to the vice principal, who threatened to kick the whole class out. I called the vice principal and apologised.”
A CNN-News18 article also accused Malik of crashing a class and “using derogatory language not just against the students but also harassed the teacher.” Though Malik denied the claim, he mentioned how after he’d raided the class and put up the video online, a parent got in touch with him. “The father told me that his daughter received many indecent messages on social media. Initially I took the video down but then reloaded it with their faces and names blurred to prove that I was not abusive.”
Lakhani, too, has faced his share of criticism. In an article on youth media platform Youth Ki Awaaz, a writer, whose mother is a teacher, wrote about how her mom’s class got interrupted by Lakhani. They criticised such raids, calling them “immature and juvenile.”
“But I don’t cross my limits – I don’t make fun of the teachers,” said Lakhani. “So far, no one has personally gotten in touch with me asking me to take down my videos. In fact, a couple of teachers whose classes I’ve raided have even left positive comments on my channel.”
One such teacher is Ghanshyam Dhoot, who teaches mathematics at a centre in Mumbai that coaches students to crack the country’s most competitive entrance exams. “It differs from person to person,” he said, when asked about reactions to such raids. “When I watched the raid later on YouTube, it made me laugh. He didn’t say anything offensive but I kicked him out soon because I didn’t want to take a chance,” he said, adding that those were the early days and that he has now tightened security in his classes.
N. S. Nappinai, a Supreme Court advocate and founder of the non-profit Cyber Saathi, which focuses on cyber safety, told VICE that Zoom bombings are “100 percent wrongful.”
“When the bombing is done for dishonest or fraudulent intent including corporate espionage or sharing obscene or sexually explicit content, it is a criminal offence,” she said. “The offender can be sentenced to imprisonment for three or, in some cases, five years for criminal offences.”
If the disruption is on the lines of a prank though, chances are there may just be an internal disciplinary action. “Civil cases before an adjudicating authority may result in penalties up to Rs 50 million,” said Nappinai.
However, this form of “unauthorised access” can get murky, especially when the pranking students are not aware of the repercussions of their actions. “If a student were to sign in using a fake ID and share pornographic content, it’s multiple offences committed in just one instance,” said Nappinai. “However, students may not even be aware that such actions amount to criminal offences. It is, therefore, important to spread awareness among young people to protect them from committing a crime, and not just for remedies in case they are victims.”
Cyber security expert Shweta Chawla adds, “Students have no idea how serious this can get; it can even lead to stalking. There are major privacy concerns. You have got family walking in and out, you have personal memorabilia in the background… from there, it becomes very easy to find you on social media. There have been instances where such miscreants have linked the attendees’ names, IDs and other details to escort services as well. The class stops being a safe environment.”
Both Malik and Lakhani have largely stopped raiding classes now.
Lakhani said raids don’t generate good content beyond a point and that he has run out of creative ideas. “Lately, students in these raids have begun to recognise me, so it’s no fun,” he said. “Also, I don’t want to get into trouble.”
But Lakhani’s DMs continue to blow up even as he now focuses on other content. Malik, meanwhile, now wants to engage only with “genuine” followers. “All I wanted to do was give these stressed children two or three minutes of entertainment,” he said.
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