Uninvited Guests, or Zoom Bombing the Oral History Interview

In OHR‘s ongoing series investigating how COVID-19 is changing the field of oral history, this post by Shu Wan discusses the implications of “digitizing” the interview process itself, with remote interviews conducted over web cams and microphones. What happens when uninvited guests appear in the interview?

By Shu Wan

During the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of individual historians and GLAM institutions became interested in documenting the traumatic experiences of American citizens during the crisis. Due to the risk of exposure brought by face-to-face communication, many of these projects were conducted on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) platforms, such as Zoom, Bluejeans Meeting, and Skype. Thanks to technological innovations in the past decade, oral historians could remotely record oral history from home. VoIP and other remote interviewing platforms demonstrate the potential of digital technologies in advancing oral history practices.

Almost a decade ago, oral historians launched the Oral History in the Digital Age initiative to promote the use of digital tools and devices in recording, processing, preserving, and exhibiting oral history raw materials and interpretations. The current proliferation of remote oral history practices, in a field that typically prioritized face-to-face interviews, may indicate the burgeoning of an “Oral History in the Digital Age 2.0”, characterized by the “digitization” of the relationship between oral historians and their human subjects, rather than of the media files themselves. Just as with the digitization of audio and the dissemination of interviews over the internet, digitization of the interview process also requires examination of our ethical responsibilities as oral historians.

In order to document the experiences of Chinese living in the United States during the pandemic, I opted to interview remotely. I wanted to record the Chinese nationals’ and immigrants’ vulnerability to the dual-threat of epidemic and xenophobia, so I conducted oral history interviews with some Chinese college students and residents in Iowa City. While interviewing one of them several weeks ago, our virtual meeting was interrupted by an uninvited guest’s posting of a couple of memes and pictures. With the concern of my interviewees’ information security and privacy, I had no choice but to end the video conversation. In light of increasing coverage of similar hacking behavior in the media, now known as “Zoom-bombing,” I am not alone in encountering uninvited guests’ harassment. However, I may be one of the first to report its incidence while recording a remote oral history interview.

Reflecting on this experience, I could identify at least two potential ethical concerns surrounding the new procedure of conducting oral history interviews online. A first primary concern for oral historians is the protection of interviewees’ privacy. For the interviewees who desire to remain anonymous, the disclosure of face, sound, or other identifiable information to the third party may place them at high risk. Thankfully, services like Zoom have responded to uninvited guests and enabled password protection and other means of eliminating intrusions.

We must also take into account how to process those interviews with unexpected interruptions by those uninvited guests. In my case, the bomber only sent irrelevant—rather than obscene—images and words. However, once some harmful or disrespectful information interfered with the recording of the interview, how should we process the original materials for further research and preservation? Should such intrusions be kept or edited out? This dilemma may provoke ethical debates surrounding the integrity and completion of archiving and preserving oral history materials.

The pandemic has encouraged many oral historians to supplement the traditional in-person interviewing routine with virtual meetings. However, before taking the next step, we must consider the ethical implications of the “new normal,” assessing what taking the interview remote will mean for the process, the archive, and future research.

Shu Wan is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University at Buffalo. Before matriculating in the program this fall, he studied as a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa.